Edinburgh flights grounded a week after launch

Martin Halstead with one of the Varsity Express planes

Serena and Graham Mason enjoying their weekend break in Edinburgh before learning their return flight had been cancelled

First published in News Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter covering Didcot and Wallingford. Call me on 01865 425425

DAILY flights on a new route between Oxford and Edinburgh have been suspended just a week after the first journey, it emerged tonight.

Passengers were left stranded at Edinburgh Airport when the new route to the Scottish capital was grounded.

Champagne corks popped as the first daily scheduled flight took off from London Oxford Airport at Kidlington last Monday.

But Varsity Express, run by Summertown-based Martin Halstead, 23, has now suspended the flights, due to “operational issues” with Humberside-based aircraft charter firm Links Air, which was contracted to run the 18-seater Jetstream 31 turboprop plane.

It is the second time one of Mr Halstead’s airline ventures has stalled on the runway.

Five years ago, he was nicknamed Baby Branson after setting up the Oxford to Cambridge service when he was 18, but the route was not a success.

Three weeks ago, Mr Halstead contacted the Oxford Mail to point out 68 per cent of tickets for the first month of the Oxford to Edinburgh route had been sold.

Yesterday Serena Mason, of The Moors, Kidlington, told how her weekend break with husband Graham was spoilt when Varsity Express cancelled the return leg of their £98 flights at the last minute.

She said: “We flew out at 8am on Friday morning and it was a noisy flight, but as we live so near the airport it was perfect and we were in our hotel in the Grassmarket three hours later.

“We had never been to Scotland before and had a fantastic weekend walking around the city taking in the sights, including Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace.

“We were due to fly back on Monday at 5pm, but when we got to the information desk in the main terminal, where someone from the airline was supposed to meet us, one passenger said they been given a letter from Varsity Express saying the flight had been suspended.

“About 13 of us were forced to find alternative flights and we had to buy tickets to Heathrow with bmi which cost £109.50 – and some passengers were understandably very angry.

“Then we had to get back from Heathrow, so we didn’t get home until about 10.30pm, instead of getting in at 6.30pm.

“I think it’s ridiculous after just a week.

“We will be seeking a refund for the return leg of the flight.

“Varsity has asked us to email them details of our claim.”

Mr Halstead was unavailable for comment yesterday but a statement for Varsity Express said: “All further ticket sales have been suspended until further notice.

“All passengers affected by the suspension of the service either have been or are currently being informed of the situation.

“The board of Varsity Air Services Ltd are in current negotiation with potential aircraft operators and AOC holders who could provide the operational capability required to allow the resumption of services, on what has already proved to be a very popular, viable and sustainable route. The board are hopeful that Varsity Air Services Ltd will be able to resume full operational services in the very near future.”

Morag Stuart, a podiatrist from Long Hanborough, who is in her 50s, was also forced to get the bmi flight to Heathrow, and will be seeking compensation from Varsity Express.

She said: “Varsity just gave us a letter and left us at the airport to make our own arrangements.

“Edinburgh isn’t just down the road and the passengers got quite flustered and upset.”

No one was answering the call centre number provided by Varsity Express – 0871 644 0450 – when the Oxford Mail called.

Laura Conaty, a customer services spokesman for London Oxford Airport, said: “Varsity Express has told us all flights have been suspended for the time being.

“But they could continue the service with a different aircraft at a later date.

“The company has contacted its customers so we haven’t had any passengers turning up expecting to fly.”

Jon Ibbotson, the owner of Linksair, said the planes were grounded following a disagreement over a financial deal struck with Mr Halstead before the flights started.

He added: “I tried to sort it out on numerous occasions over the phone.”

affrench@oxfordmail.co.uk

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