Herman De Wulf/BRUSSELS

City Bird is undertaking a strategic change in direction early next year when the low-cost, long-haul airline begins short-haul charter operations with a fleet of Boeing 737s.

The move was signalled when Brussels-based City Bird signed a lease deal with Boullioun Aviation Services for two Boeing 737-400s and two -800s. The -400s will be delivered later this month, with the -800s to follow in March and April 2001. "Our aim is to limit our new short haul activities to charter operations as the scheduled market is already occupied by Virgin Express," says the airline.

City Bird's parent is Belgian hotel group City Holding, which owns hotels across Europe and the USA and is in the process of splitting its hotel and airline activities. Its move into short-haul charters follows the expiration of a three-year agreement between City Bird boss Victor Hasson and Richard Branson, after Hasson sold City Bird's predecessor EuroBelgian Airlines to Branson, who rebranded the airline Virgin Express.

Hasson had agreed that City Bird would refrain from competing with his old company in the short term, and founded City Bird as a long haul airline in 1995. More recently it has started expanding into the cargo market.

The carrier now has three MD-11s and two Boeing 767-300ERs. Although scheduled flights form the core of Virgin Express' operations, 40% of its business still comes from charter work, so it will face competition from City Bird's new operation.

Source: Flight International