The fall of Varsity Express

Oxford Mail: Martin Halstead Martin Halstead

Two announcements that might affect the travel plans of Oxfordshire residents occurred this month. First, passengers seeking information about their flight with Varsity Express from Edinburgh to Oxford were told when it would take off — never.

Secondly, people living around Finmere, near the border with Northamptonshire, heard that a high-speed train travelling at up to 225mph from London to Birmingham would pass through a field near them in 2026.

In announcing the £15.8bn rail link, transport secretary Lord Adonis said high-speed trains emitted far less carbon than planes per passenger mile, stressing that an improved rail network was the way forward.

Hardly good news for the expanding Oxford airport, now calling itself London Oxford Airport, though spokesman James Dillon-Godfray had others matters on his mind.

He was busy trying to contain any loss of confidence, even ridicule, the airport might have earned following the collapse of Varsity Express, the latest brainchild of Martin Halstead, 23, otherwise known as Baby Branson.

After all, this is the second venture Mr Halstead had planned to run from Oxford. In 2004 he announced that his new airline Alpha One would operate a daily service between Oxford and Cambridge — but it never got off the ground. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, for an airport to be caught out once by a young man with a plan might be deemed bad luck, but to be caught out twice might seem like carelessness.

Mr Dillon-Godfray said: “To be fair, he never raised the money for his Oxford-Cambridge flights and said so. The flights were eventually operated by Sky Commuter but found to be not viable.

“This time, though, we didn’t even know at first that Martin Halstead was involved with this venture. We thought a Mr Gilligan was in charge. As it turned out, Mr Gilligan was Martin Halstead.”

He added: “From now on we shall only do business with well established, well identified operators. We offered Martin a chance, but he blew it.”

Now the police are investigating allegations of “fraudulent activity” by Varsity Express.

In his defence, Mr Halstead said: “I have never acted fraudulently and I don’t think anyone within my company has. It’s an incredibly unfortunate set of circumstances.”

Told that records at Companies House show that Mr Halstead had registered Oxford Airport as the address of Varsity Air Services, the parent company of Varsity Express, Mr Dillon-Godfray added: “I didn’t know that. We did business with him at an address in Canary Wharf.”

He added the airport was now in talks with other operators to take over the Oxford to Edinburgh route, which he said appeared viable.

Mr Halstead hired aircraft for the Edinburgh run from Links Air which, Mr Dillon-Godfray said, was excellent and paid its airport dues. It was Links Air which pulled the financial carpet from under Mr Halstead when it was left unpaid for the hire of its aircraft, bringing to ground with a bump his dreams of becoming a tycoon.

The collapse of Varsity Express happened against a backdrop of success for Oxford London Airport’s venture into the world of scheduled services.

Before Christmas it launched Swiss airline Baboo’s flights to Geneva, an event that received a fillip from the threat of a BA strike. Sad to reflect that, had circumstances been different, Martin Halstead could have benefited from a similar situation now.

But does Oxford Airport’s avowed intent to deal only with established airlines from now on mean that the place may expand to accommodate the likes of Ryanair and EasyJet?

“No, not at all,” said Mr Godfrey. “For one thing the size of our our runways means we couldn’t take planes larger than the 74-seater Dash presently operated once a week to Geneva.”

The official travel agent for Oxford Airport, David Gambier, of Great Experience Travel in Witney, said: “Of course its disappointing that Varsity folded. People called Martin Halstead ‘Baby Branson’ but obviously he has not got the commercial acumen of Sir Richard Branson.”

Mr Gambier had to lodge a surety of several thousand pounds in order to obtain an ATOL (Air Travel Organisers Licence) from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). However, no such barrier to entry prevented Mr Halstead from trading.

CAA spokesman Alexandra Coleman said: “Links Air operated the aircraft and Varsity Express acted as its agent. Varsity did not need an ATOL because it was not putting together travel packages but only offering air tickets. There is currently some consultation within the industry about the possibility of requiring anyone who sells air tickets — whether or not in conjunction with hotel accommodation — to obtain ATOL.”

Mr Halstead has said that he would refund all tickets sold, but the advantage of buying from an ATOL registered agent is that the money is automatically refunded.

Ms Coleman said that, potentially, customers of non-ATOL registered operators could get refunds from their credit card company.

And what about that threat to Oxford Airport from the High Speed Train?

Mr Dillon-Godfray said: “The new train will make zero difference to residents of Oxfordshire since it won’t stop here. And it will not even be up and running until at least 2026.”

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