35th Anniversary RBA's First Flight

[Tomorrow is RBA's 35th Anniversary of its first official flight. I wrote this article and it was published yesterday in my column, The Golden Legacy, in Brunei Times]

Royal Brunei Airlines in Brunei Aviation History

In two days time, Brunei’s own national airlines, the Royal Brunei Airlines will be celebrating its 35th Anniversary of its first historic flight. Royal Brunei Airlines was officially established on 18 November 1974. However its first maiden flight was on 14 April 1975 flying from the new Brunei International Airport in Berakas to Singapore.

On that same day, there were also flights to Hong Kong, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching. The following year, RBA expanded its flight to Manila, Philippines and the year after to Bangkok, Thailand. RBA had only two Boeing 737s then. With a third Boeing 737 bought in 1980, RBA flew to Kuala Lumpur in 1981 and in 1983, to Darwin, Australia.

The 1975 RBA’s first official flight marked a chapter in the history of Brunei’s flight. It was about 50 years earlier, that according to the Brunei Annual Report of 1922, the first airplane to fly over Brunei was a seaplane spotted over Tutong in 1922. Nobody knew whose plane that was.

Despite the current modern international airport in Berakas, not many people knew that sixty years ago, there was no airfield whatsoever at all in Brunei. The first runaway was constructed by the Japanese in the Second World War at the current Old Airport Government Buildings Complex. After the end of the war, that runaway was repaired and improved by the Allied Forces and a proper airport was planned and built.

The first commercial air transport in Brunei Darussalam only began in 1953 with the establishment of internal air service links connecting Pekan Brunei with Anduki in the Belait District. In those days, driving to Kuala Belait from Pekan Brunei was a whole day affair as cars had to travel via the coast and travelling had to take into account the tides and the conditions of the beaches and the waves.

The first initial overseas flights were to the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah which were to accommodate travellers from Labuan in Sabah and Lutong in Sarawak. Most Bruneians who had to travel overseas for their studies had to fly via Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) to catch a connecting flight to Singapore.

At first it was the Malayan Airways using De Havilland Rapides aircraft that operated between Brunei Town, Anduki, Miri and Labuan with over 4,300 passengers using the Brunei Airport in 1955. The Brunei Airport was only able to serve small twin-engined turbo props airplanes like the De Haviland, the Douglas DC3s and later the Fokker Friendships.

The Anduki Airport in Seria played a very significant role in the aviation history of Brunei. Completed sometime in 1951, it served the Shell company operating in Seria.

In the 1970s there was a very significant growth in popularity of air travel. The old Brunei Airport was swamped with activity, operating beyond its capacity. This prompted the authorities to build a modern airport and the new Brunei International Airport began construction in 1970, was completed in 1974. Many international airlines used the airport but it was RBA that made the airport its own home.

After the independence of Brunei on 1 January 1984, RBA commenced services to Jakarta, Indonesia, on 3 January. In the mid 1980s, three Boeing 757s were purchased. RBA expanded to Taipei in 1986, and to Dubai in 1988. In 1990 RBA began its flight to Europe. Its first European city was Frankfurt am Main, Germany, via Bangkok and Dubai and to London Gatwick Airport later changed to London Heathrow Airport in 1991. Also in 1991 RBA opened Perth and to Jeddah.

RBA’s first wide bodied aircraft were the Boeing 767. In delivering the first Boeing 767 to RBA, a world record was broken. That first RBA Boeing 767 flew 18 hours non-stop from Seattle to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya on its way to Brunei. Eight Boeing 767s were bought and RBA expanded to Abu Dhabi, Bali, Zurich, Bahrain, Beijing and Cairo in 1993; Brisbane and Osaka in 1994 and to Kolkata, India in 1995.

Two Fokker 50 aircraft were used to start services to Miri and Labuan and Balikpapan in 1994. Two Dornier 228s were purchased in the same year and leased to the Malaysian regional carrier, Hornbill Airways, to connect Brunei by air to Mulu Airport. One of the Dornier crashed near Miri Airport in 1997 killing all its 19 passengers.

The F-50s were replaced by the larger and more comfortable F-100 jets in 1996 which added flights to Bintulu. Surabaya was the fourth Indonesian destination to be added to the network later that year. Kuwait was added in 2000 and Shanghai in 2001.

However after years of operation, RBA began a major restructuring in 2003. The plan included increasing RBA’s fleet from 9 aircrafts to 24 in 2013. The Boeing 767s were to be replaced with 15 new narrow body and 8 wide bodied aircraft with half to be purchased and the rest leased. New services were to be added, unprofitable routes dropped and unneeded aeroplanes sold off.

In 2003, the deliveries of two new Airbus A319 and two new A320 marked the start of the re-equipping exercise and fly mainly on regional routes.

In May 2003, Royal Skies, the airlines’ frequent flyer programme, was launched. On 31 October 2003, Auckland was added to the network and Ho Chi Minh in 2006.

Blue Sky Fares, a low cost Internet booking facility, introduced in 2003, offered cheaper economy class fares to selected destinations, to compete with low cost carriers in the region.

In 2004, several of the Boeing 767s were modified with SkyDreamer seats for Business Class and 8.4 inch television for Economy Class.

Like many airlines around the world, RBA also introduced its own frequent flyer program called Royal Skies in 2003. Members earn actual miles on every eligible RBA flight. These miles can be redeemed for free flights or seat upgrades.

In order to provide better services to business class and premium passengers, in 2004, RBA introduced its own special lounge at the Brunei International Airport known as Sky Lounge with 140 seats.

Other innovation offered by RBA included E-Ticketing (launched in 2003), in-flight meals designed by Chef Michel Roux Jr. of the La Gavroche restaurant in London, the on-board entertainment system Skyshow and the award winning in-flight magazine Muhibah.

For the future, RBA needed new long range aircraft such as the Boeing 777s or Boeing 787s. With these aircraft, RBA can provide new long-haul and non-stop services to Europe and beyond.

The history of Brunei aviation has seen many changes and Royal Brunei Airlines played an important role in that history.


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Parag said…
RBA introduced its own special lounge at Brunei International Airport known as Sky Lounge with 140 seats to provide better services to business class and premium passengers.
Jomo Kenyatta airport

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