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New “Baby Branson” venture takes off

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The 23-year-old entrepreneur, nicknamed “Baby Branson” launched Varsity Express last week, with daily flights between Oxford (London Oxford airport) and Edinburgh.

“Oxford is a developing airport that has been looking for this service for some time, and our forward bookings have proven that there’s a big need for this new link,” he says.

Comparing his brand to Jack Wills, the “university outfitters”, Halstead says Varsity will be a “classic chic” business, targeting both students as well as business travelers.

“We’re trying to keep away from the low-cost model of added-on charges and fees,” he explains. “A perfect way to describe us is as a ‘boutique carrier’. We’re a niche carrier – although we’re small, we’re all about the customer and their experience.”

It does look like Varsity has an attractive proposition: customers can travel between the two cities in an 18-seat twin-prop plane in just under an hour and a half, with complimentary food and drink on board, at a low cost.

“There’s a lot of business between the two cities,” he explains. “The travel connections in the UK with regards to road and rail are pretty appalling. We want a consistent solid brand that people will recognise as a quality brand.”

While saying that “cheap and nasty is not part of our business plan”, Halstead emphasizes that Varsity will remain low-cost, offering flights at £49 one way.

An additional USP for Varsity is the quick 15-minute executive check-in. Varsity flies out of Oxford’s executive terminal, meaning less time spent on queuing and security.

Eventually, Halstead says he wants to expand the airline’s scope. Varsity is already looking at flights to Newcastle, as well as operating out of other southeast locations.

This isn’t Halstead’s first venture into the airline community – aged 19, Halstead set up AlphaOne Airways, which intended to connect Oxford and Cambridge.

Although that route never got off the ground, AlphaOne Airways flew briefly between Edinburgh and the Isle and Man, before closing down very quickly, due to a key investor pulling out.

So what is stopping Varsity Express from going down that same route?

“One of the keys to my agreeing to being involved in this project was that it should be incredibly well funded,” says Halstead. “We have enough money in place to run for a long time without making a profit.”

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