Varsity Express

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Varsity Express
IATA ICAO Callsign
- - -
Founded 2009
Commenced operations 1 March 2010
Ceased operations 8 March 2010
Operating bases London Oxford Airport
Fleet size 1
Destinations 2
Headquarters Canary Wharf, London
Key people Martin Halstead (Founder & MD

Varsity Express (Varsity Air Services Ltd) was a regional airline based at London Oxford Airport in England. It was never a licensed airline but sold tickets on flights operated by Linksair, but pilots were employed by Varsity Express which operated only 11 scheduled flights on behalf of Varsity Express over a space of one week in March 2010.

Background and Launch[edit]

The airline first became public on 20 January 2010. Press releases arranged by a British aviation PR company called Emerald Media announced that Varsity Express would launch an air service between Edinburgh and Oxford in March 2010.[1] From the outset, Varsity Express embraced social networking and microblogging media, using Twitter and Facebook to reach out to its potential clientele in the university cities where it planned to operate. Even before its maiden flight, Varsity Express announced new routes linking Newcastle-upon-Tyne with both Edinburgh and Oxford.[2]

The company was set up and managed by Martin Halstead. Halstead secured some publicity in 2005 when, at the age of 18, he announced that he would launch his own aviation business.[3] Halstead's 2005 business was called AlphaOne Airways. It had a number of false starts. Halstead announced services from Oxford in March 2005[4] and later the same year from Southampton Airport.[5] AlphaOne Airways never flew a single flight from either airport. In December 2005 and January 2006, a limited flight programme took place between Isle of Man and Edinburgh. The business folded after having carried only 46 passengers.

Halstead's personality-based PR had underpinned AlphaOne Airways, but the venture was underfunded. Because AlphaOne did not have the necessary certification to operate flights itself, Halstead arranged for a licensed carrier to fly on his behalf. He followed the same strategy with Varsity Express, but claimed he had a sounder funding base. With the 2010 venture, Martin Halstead stated that Varsity Express had sufficient funds to operate for 18 months without carrying a single passenger. Ten days prior to Varsity's first flight, Halstead also claimed to the media that his nascent airline already employed about 20 people.[6]

However, it later emerged that the business had almost no capital.[7] The business was funded by £3,500 of Mr Halstead's own money, and £52,500 that he took from four newly qualified pilots, in respect of specialised 'type training' that they never received.[8]

The airline started operations on 1 March 2010 with flight LNQ601 (operated on behalf of Varsity by Linksair) leaving Oxford Airport shortly after 0800 local time, touching down in Edinburgh at 9.42 am. Varsity allowed 90 minutes for the sector, evidently insufficient, as none of the first four Oxford to Edinburgh flights landed before 9.30 am.

Demise and Aftermath[edit]

On the afternoon of 8 March 2010, Varsity Express suspended operations after Links Air, the company which owned the plane leased by Varsity, refused to continue supporting the airline. Thirteen passengers were left stranded because the second leg of their return tickets was not honoured.[9] In media interviews, a Links Air representative cited non-payment of bills by Martin Halstead as the reason for withdrawing from the venture.[10]

A number of allegations of dishonesty surrounding the business were reported in The Times newspaper on 14 March 2010.[11] The article reported allegations including that Martin Halstead used a fictitious name to act as commercial director and financial backer of the airline, launched the airline with a business partner who was disqualified from acting as a company director, boasted of fictitious investors, and obtained finance for the business by inducing four newly qualified pilots to pay a total of £52,500 into his personal bank account for training that was never provided.

The police are reported to have received complaints against the company and to be investigating these.[12] Mr Halstead admits using a false name to hide his involvement in the company, in an attempt to avoid the effects of damaged credibility resulting from his previous failed ventures, but denies illegality.[13]


For the one week that it operated, Varsity Express linked the following two airports:

Operator Status[edit]

Varsity Express did not have an Air Operator's Certificate, so the company's flights were operated by Humberside based Linksair Ltd using a single Jetstream 31 aircraft. Varsity Express (like AlphaOne Airways before it) was thus an extreme example of what transport economists often term a virtual airline. It even outsourced its core flying operations. Because it neither possessed, nor had it applied for, an Air Operator's Certification from the Civil Aviation Authority (United Kingdom), Varsity Express was never subject to the regulatory scrutiny (with respect to financial backing and the sustainability of the proposed operation) that would have applied to a start-up carrier seeking to secure its own Air Operator's Certificate.[14]


  1. ^ "Varsity Express launches scheduled flights". Travel Daily News. January 21, 2010. Retrieved March 12, 2010. 
  2. ^ "Varsity Express to add Oxford-Newcastle route". Business Traveller. February 10, 2010. Retrieved March 12, 2010. 
  3. ^ "Teenager launches his own airline". BBC News. March 22, 2005. Retrieved March 10, 2010. 
  4. ^ "Young entrepreneur makes aviation history". Oxford Airport Press Release. March 21, 2005. Retrieved February 17, 2010. 
  5. ^ "Teenager launches his own airline". BBC News. October 24, 2005. Retrieved February 4, 2010. 
  6. ^ "Baby Branson back in business". Witney Gazette. February 18, 2010. Retrieved March 12, 2010. 
  7. ^ Foggo, Daniel; Foley, Martin (March 14, 2010). "Varsity Express: Baby Branson’s bogus business". The Times. London. Retrieved March 13, 2010. 
  8. ^ "Grounded pilot wants £15,000 back from Varsity Express". Oxford Mail. March 17, 2010. Retrieved March 17, 2010. 
  9. ^ "Edinburgh flights grounded a week after launch". Oxford Mail. March 9, 2010. Retrieved March 17, 2010. 
  10. ^ Dalton, Alastair (March 11, 2010). "Airline launched by Baby Branson grounded one week after take-off". The Scotsman. Edinburgh. Retrieved March 11, 2010. 
  11. ^ Foggo, Daniel; Foley, Martin (March 14, 2010). "Varsity Express: Baby Branson’s bogus business". The Times. London. Retrieved March 13, 2010. 
  12. ^ "Fraud probe into flight service from Oxford Airport". BBC News. March 16, 2010. Retrieved March 16, 2010. 
  13. ^ "Police to probe Varsity airline". Oxford Mail. March 16, 2010. Retrieved March 16, 2010. 
  14. ^ "Is my flight legal: a guide to the Air Operator’s Certificate" (PDF). Civil Aviation Authority (United Kingdom). 2009. Retrieved January 31, 2010. 

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