Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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The CityBird of Happiness Across the Atlantic
July 27, 1997 -- Finally, a bargain-basement-price airline with the frills and comforts of big, established carriers and a few new conveniences. It's about time.

If Brusels-based CityBird lives up to its promises, it will rule the roost among business and leisure travelers who want to stretch their dollars across the Atlantic without boarding flying cattle cars.

The price is right. As low as $148 one-way nonstop from Miami or Newark to Brussels, Belgium, a lovely city in its own right and a convenient jumping-off spot for Europe's major cities. From San Francisco or Los Angeles, the lowest one-way fare to Brussels is $198. The airline also serves Orlando and Mexico City.

Only a limited number of seats on each flight are priced that low, of course, but even the regular coach fares are a steal: $184 one-way from East Coast cities and $294 from the West Coast. And you don't have to book 21 days in advance to get the lowest rate. If one of the designated seats is free, you buy and fly -- the same day, if you prefer.

For the flexible flyer, CityBird has come up with some very bright ideas. All tickets are one way. Want to go to Paris but don't know when you're coming back? Jet to Brussels, take a train to the City of Lights and return when the spirit moves you.

Virtually all other airlines sell their lowest fares - and most of their tickets - on a round-trip basis, and you pay $50 to $100 to change a return flight. And if that low fare class isn't available on that flight, you automatically pay the next higher fare - a high price to pay for changing your mind.

CityBird doesn't require Saturday-night stayovers for low-price tickets. CityBird has some other smart policies, too. If a family or business emergency forces you to change your plans at the last minute, you can assign your ticket to a friend, relative or business colleague. The fee: a $45 processing fee.

"That's unheard-of for a coach ticket," says Larry Riley, sales and marketing director for CityBird who spent 10 years with America West Airlines. "And there's no charge for changing a business-class ticket."

Business class? That's right. Usually the way upstart airlines compete with entrenched behemoths is by price and streamlined service. Western Pacific, Southwestand Midway Airlines a;; sell single class.

But CityBird offers what it calls Royal Eagle business class. It provides the same pampering as the majors: wide seat, Champagne, choice of meals, open bar and a choice of movies you can watch in your seat. The airline even has added a prized amenity for the business traveler: AC power supplies for laptop computers.

CityBird's 36-seat business class is priced startlingly low. For instance, American Airlines sells a round-trip business-class ticket from San Francisco to Brussels with a plane change at New York City's Kennedy Airport for $4,760. CityBird's Royal Eagle service is $774 one-way from Los Angeles and Oakland. True, you don't get American's precious frequent-flyer miles (CityBird does not offer a mileage scheme.)) But for a $3,212 savings, I can live with that. In fact, American's coach fare from the Bay Area to Brussels is quoted at $1,585--higher than the Bird's business class.

Now suppose you want to fly coach one way and business class the other. The major airlines price tickets based on round trips; you can't split classes without paying a fortune. CityBird will accommodate you.

CityBird also offers electronic ticketing - only. Some passengers feel weird about this; they like to clutch their paper tickets, especially on international flights. But you can misplace or lose paper tickets and it can be a nightmare to replace one. You can't lose an E-ticket.

CityBird will not hold reservations like other airlines do while you make up your mind or decide on your date. You'd better have your plans made or your options right at your fingertips. Because when you (or your travel agent) calls to book and you're fortunate enough to snag one of the limited super-cheap seats, you have to buy it on the spot. No dawdling, or it goes back into inventory instantly.

Riley says CityBird's economy class isn't only for the backpack crowd. Coach flyers get a full meal and two free movies. On the daytime return trip from Brussels, there is some novel in-flight entertainmen: magicians and caricature artists are along for the ride to amuse and sketch passengers.

But CityBird doesn't have the flight frequencies that the big guys offer. While it operates relatively new MD-11s--a wide-body trijet and the successor to the workhorse DC-10 - it only has two of them at the moment. So some U.S. cities only have one weekly departure, not one daily departure. Next spring, the airline claims, it is adding two more wide-bodied jets, doubling the size of its fleet.

Riley says CityBird will likely add more flights from existing cities instead of spreading its wings to serve new markets.

But Brussels is the gateway to Europe: London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt are all about 200 miles away, and train connections are plentiful. Or land in Brussels and connect with low-priced Virgin Express for swift trips to Madrid, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Rome or other European cities. Plans are under way for CityBird reservations agents to handle Virgin Express ticketing with a phone call. Travel agents can do it now.

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