Last year Royal Brunei Airlines was forced to dissolve the majority of its long-haul network amid a deteriorating economic situation.
Fights to Auckland, Brisbane, and Perth in Australia, as well Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, were all pulled, as the carrier retreated back into its core long-haul market, offering flights to the UK.
With a domestic population of fewer than half a million people, the government-owned carrier had fallen victim to an over ambitious expansion plan, largely driven by political pressure.
Attempting to mirror the successes seen among carriers in the Middle East - notably Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways - Royal Brunei had instead come down to earth with a bump.
But what a difference a year makes.
Flying with the carrier on a recent trip to Bandar Seri Begawan, the spirit of optimism among everyone involved with the airline is palpable.
With a new management team in place, led by industry veteran Dermot Mannion (formerly chief executive at Aer Lingus), new aircraft on order, and a major overhaul of Brunei International Airport underway, the airline is once again looking forward with confidence.
Deputy chairman Dermot Mannion has led the resurgence at Royal Brunei Airlines
Mannion recently told Breaking Travel News: “Sometimes in business you have to take one step backwards in order to take two steps forward.
“This is exactly what we have done here. Our ownership has taken the timely but difficult decision to rationalise the long haul network.
“In future, our long haul strategy will be to focus exclusively on daily same time services to London, Melbourne and Dubai, which are of key strategic importance to the country.”
A key step on this journey will be taken next year, when Royal Brunei will receive the first of five Dreamliners it has on order from Boeing.
The cutting edge plane is built from light-weight composites and features numerous systems, engine and aerodynamic advancements, making it more efficient to operate.
It is the first mid-sized airplane capable of flying long-range, enabling airlines to open new, non-stop routes preferred by passengers.
Royal Brunei will now focus on a small number of profitable routes
The Dreamliner will also fit with the Royal Brunei focus on service, with the carrier seeking to become a boutique airline, offering top level customer service on a select number of highly profitable routes.
Mannion added: “The biggest challenge for all small airlines especially in tough times is to stay ‘relevant’ in an already crowded marketplace.
“For Royal Brunei this means concentrating on the regional markets we know best, supplemented by a small number of strategically important long haul routes.
“The scattergun approach simply does not work for small carriers and RBA’s recent restructuring is designed to make us more selective and focused.”
Royal Brunei hopes to become the leading carrier in south-east Asia
Brunei International Airport
These ambitious plans are being matched by those of Brunei International Airport, which is presently undergoing a major regeneration.
Scheduled for completion in November 2014, the project is expected to double the handling capacity of the airport from the current 1.5 million passengers annually.
Major improvements include increasing the number of check-in counters from 19 to 40; adding more immigration counters; a new car park; and a new custom designated e-Ticketing system.
“The modernised airport is expected to boost Brunei Darussalam’s efforts to develop itself as a competitive air logistics hub in the region, improve airport connectivity, flight frequency and passenger traffic which will contribute to the vibrant growth of sectors such as tourism, trade and investments,” explained the Brunei Economic Development Board.
“The project would also set a benchmark for service excellence and operational efficiency.”
Brunei hopes to use its cultural heritage to boost visitor numbers
Brunei Tourism has also been working in concert with the carrier to boost visitor numbers to the destination as the destination seeks to diversify away from its dependence on energy.
In 2011, the sultanate recorded a total of 242,000 tourists, a 13 per cent rise on the previous year.
However, it has targeted 400,000 annual visitors by 2016.
The board of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation finds direct tourism revenues accounted for some $154 million in Brunei last year, representing just one per cent of GDP, while the industry employed 5,200 people.
In response, a five-year master plan to be launched this year.
A total of 69 projects have been identified, all designed to stress the natural assets and Islamic culture of the destination.
At the heart of the programme are two growth clusters.
While the nature cluster will focus on eco-tourism, wildlife, adventure and education, the culture and Islamic cluster emphasises projects related to museums, handicrafts and Kampong Ayer, a water village in the capital that houses 30,000 people in houses on stilts and is connected by 36 kilometres of boardwalks.
Secondary offerings include diving, beach tourism and wellness products, as well as cruise tourism.
With the difficult years now behind it, Royal Brunei is poised to exploit the growing popularity of its domestic tourism market, the possibilities of the Dreamliner and its new home at Brunei International Airport as it continues to grow.
With a favourable headwind, the airline could put Brunei on the map.
Take a look at the exclusive Breaking Travel News interview with Royal Brunei deputy chairman Dermot Mannion here.
For more information on the airline, head over the official website.