UK start-up opens with Oxford-Edinburgh service

 - February 23, 2010, 9:15 AM

New UK domestic regional airline Varsity Express plans single weekday flights between Oxford (60 miles northwest of London) and Edinburgh, Scotland, starting March 1. For the first 10 days, the flights will offer all seats for £49 (about $85) one way. Thereafter, fares will range from £49 to a walk-up “business-class” price of £149 (about $250).

Beginning April 5 Varsity plans a second daily flight on the route, via Newcastle on the northeast English coast. The initial northbound breakfast-time departures will return in the late afternoon, while the second service operates in the middle of the day, increasing utilization of the single leased BAe Jetstream 31.

Director Martin Halstead told AIN that Varsity’s business plan assumes a 42-percent load factor, equivalent to eight passengers per flight, 65 percent of which he expects to be business-class. Halstead acknowledged that Oxford-Edinburgh route is a “relatively small” niche market of about 4,000 passengers per year in each direction.

The quoted fares suggest Varsity believes it can break even at about £900 for each 90-minute flight. Halstead said that Varsity expects to provide ad hoc charters, but that it hasn’t set a “real time frame” in which to make money. “We expect to get a clear idea [of market realities] after three to four months,” he said, adding that Varsity might launch other unspecified routes at that time. Backed by British and Spanish real-estate and entertainment-industry interests, Varsity has “enough money to operate for 18 months without passengers, but we will not do that,” said Halstead.

UK-based Jetstream 31 capacity provider Linksair will operate the flights for Varsity under a wet-lease arrangement covering aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance for which Varsity expects to provide half of the required captains and first officers. Four years ago, at the age of 19, Halstead established Alpha One Airways, initially an Oxford-Cambridge shuttle and subsequently an Isle of Man-Edinburgh service, but each ceased operation after a short time.