Chief Executive Officer
Royal Brunei Airlines
Karam has close to 30 years’ experience in international and domestic airline business in full service, hybrid and low-cost models. His expertise is in corporate strategy, network and fleet planning, revenue management, airline operations and risk management. Karam is a fellow of the Institute of Travel and Tourism UK and a fellow of Australian Institute of Management. He holds a master’s degree in Air Transport Management from Cranfield University and has honed his skills through programs at IATA, Australian Institute of Management, Virgin Australia and Stanford University.
Years in the industry: 30
Favorite airport: SIN
Seatback or PED? PED
Passport stamp you wish you had: Outer space
In recent years, Royal Brunei Airlines (RB) has announced new routes, new aircraft and a new focus on destination marketing. Can you elaborate on these?
As part of our long-term plan we have set some key objectives: integrating new technology on our aircraft to reset our cost base and reduce emissions and fuel burn, and expanding our network to ensure we optimize revenues and fill in gaps especially in China and North Asia which are high growth tourism markets and strategic capital city-to-capital city connections. Having experienced over 25 percent growth in seat capacity last year, we needed to refresh Brunei destination marketing. As we are the first beneficiary of an expanded route network given we provide 80 percent of all seats into Brunei, it was a no-brainer.
We differentiate ourselves from competition by being focused on service. We received an APEX five-star award for Major Airline this year – a great validation from our guests and industry for the execution of our strategy to become a boutique airline. Now we can take our brand to the market in stronger way. Thus, we are starting a campaign this month that talks about “the little things we do” for our guests, taking us further from the other highly commoditized airline products.
“What we have learned is price is not everything. The product features, reliability, service delivery is highly sought in Asia Pacific. Our A320neo has seatback in-flight entertainment with over 1,000 options even on a two-hour sector.”
What insights have you gained from your previous roles at other carriers and what’s your strategy for rising above other Asia-Pacific carriers?
What we have learned is price is not everything. The product features, reliability, service delivery is highly sought in Asia Pacific. Our A320neo has seatback in-flight entertainment with over 1,000 options even on a two-hour sector. Our operational reliability is over 91 percent, one of the best in the world. So we are focused on offering a consistent product and service across both single-aisle and wide-body aircraft. Service, service, service is our mantra.
Which aspects of the air travel journey are most important to your passengers?
IFE is very important. The choice and experience matters given the disruption caused by Netflix, for example, because guests expect similar experiences on board. In-flight connectivity is becoming important, too. However, the business case remains elusive for most airlines. If you ask guests if they will pay for connectivity, the projected and actual uptake seen elsewhere is low. The uptake on free of charge connectivity is below 40 percent from the research we have seen. So, this makes for a very interesting dilemma for airline CEOs.
Which trends outside of the airline industry do you have your eye on and why?
Airlines are legacy businesses with lots of legacy processes and systems. The world has shown us how technology can be smartly used across all parts of the business from electric flight bags, portable engineering solutions, check-in using mobile devices and more recently, biometrics. Deep guest engagement and quick resolution of guest issues require new solutions. We have just established a 24/7 guest care team in our operations control center. This is an expensive initiative but the right one given the 24/7 cycle of social media.
Has social media changed the way airlines and their customers communicate?
It certainly has. There’s the speed, transparency, the emotional part (both positive and negative) and perhaps greater expectations from the guests – some of which is unrealistic. For example, if there are technical issues with the national Internet provider, people are more understanding. However, if there is a mechanical defect on an aircraft, guests expect to be put onto another aircraft or airline within a very short time.
Six Stops in Bandar Seri Begawan
Insider tips courtesy of Royal Brunei Airlines Corporate Communications.
Recognizing that Brunei is not well known around the world, Royal Brunei Airlines has launched a campaign to position its hub as an exciting stopover destination. “We believe city dwellers, families, senior citizens and those who seek adventure and ecotourism will find Brunei a very compelling choice,” Chand says.
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
Visit during non-prayer time so you can walk through the stunning prayer halls. This building is an especially extraordinary sight at sunset.
This 60-year-old clock tower was built to commemorate the visit of Malaysia’s first king in 1959. It also marks ground zero for Brunei – from which distances are measured in the country.
The Empire Brunei
The opulent 7,150-square-foot Empire Suite features a master bedroom; reception, dining, meeting and living areas; as well as a private swimming pool and sauna. The first guest to stay at the suite was US President Bill Clinton. There is also a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course on the grounds.
Gadong Night Market
Walk around first and observe the stalls with the most crowds or longest queues – that is normally an indication that the stall sells some of the best items.
The recently opened Kampong Ayer walking trail can be done without a travel guide. The trail brings you to places with great antiques and to some of the most whimsically colorful houses in the area.
Pass on ambuyat for this simpler meal, made up of plain rice, fried chicken and a generous serving of sambal. In most places, it’s sold for just one Brunei dollar (75 cents US). Based on ancient folklore, the only way to get late-night food was to knock on a vendor’s door (nasi means rice, katok means knock). As such, most nasi katok outlets operate until dawn – some are open 24 hours.
This article was originally published in the 10.1 February/March issue of APEX Experience magazine.