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OXF-EDI on Varsity Express’ Inaugural J-31 Service

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PlymSpotter (Photo Quality Screener & Founding Member) 04 Mar 10, 13:19Post
The Birth of an Airline

OXF-EDI on Varsity Express’ Inaugural Service



Introduction:


The depths of a recession may seem an unlikely stage from which to launch a new airline into the already crowded UK domestic market, but it’s clear from the start that Martin Halstead is no ordinary entrepreneur. Like many fellow pilots and enthusiasts he dreamed of one day founding his own airline, realising this ambition in 2005 with the inception of Alpha One Airlines. Although that venture quickly turned sour he never relinquished the dream and in early 2010 announced the creation of Varsity Express, a new airline which would launch flights between Oxford and Edinburgh.

Despite persistent criticism and dismissive comments that the venture would fail before it even got off the ground I believed differently and in late January, when their booking engine went live, I purchased a ticket on the inaugural flight. Even though it had only been online for a day or so, I was customer number 43 according to my receipt – a positive sign that I wasn’t the only one who believed this route had potential.


Monday 1st March 2010:


Arriving at London Oxford Airport, better known locally as Kidlington, is a noticeably different experience from practically all other terminals. The entrance to the airport and hanger complex is manned by a guard who promptly produces a clipboard containing the day’s flight manifest as we approach. Despite being relatively new to scheduled flights Oxford airport has made its name and reputation as a channel for business aviation which affords a more personal touch. This outpost is the sole contact many VIP’s will have with ground staff as they make a seamless transition from car to aircraft. The majority of us still have to dream about such luxuries, so my name is crossed off and the barrier raised as we’re given directions to the Oxfordjet terminal building, a short way ahead.

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The main reception desk inside the business aviation terminal has been modified on the right-hand side to provide a dedicated airline-style check-in area, staffed today by two helpful representatives who issue my boarding pass. Here at Oxford the last check-in time is 15 minutes before the flight departs and each passenger is permitted 20kg of luggage – a 15kg hold item and a 5kg piece of hand baggage.

Amidst the early morning rays of light cast through the entranceway, Varsity Express’ founder and Managing Director, Martin Halstead, can be seen giving an interview to Ralph Anker of anna.aero.

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It’s evident from the surroundings that this isn’t your standard regional airport. There’s no prefabricated metal seating here; it’s a cut above, used to servicing the demands of those who can afford to fly in style. The refined theme continues as I progress to the departure lounge where some of the other passengers have gathered, although it’s bemusing that amidst such finery the drinks machine still charges you £1.50 for something only just passable as espresso.

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Thanks to a frosty start across Oxfordshire the Jetstream is still receiving a thorough coating of de-icing fluid by the ground staff, so I back into a leather chair and watch the intricate, almost dance-like process taking place around the wings and tail, through a wall of floor to ceiling glazing.

Despite the comparatively small size of this fledgling enterprise a considerable media and industry contingent is present to witness the launch, and we are soon escorted over the ramp to the awaiting aircraft where members of the Varsity Express team are ready to field questions and photo opportunities.

Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly G-JIBO, a BAe Jetstream 31 aircraft, that held centre stage over the proceedings this morning, her combined Linksair/Varsity Express colors glinting expectantly in the pale winter sunlight. Initially developed in the 1960’s by Handley Page as the Jetstream 1, the design was resurrected and modernized in the 1980’s by British Aerospace. Recognising the demand for a low capacity, high speed, regional airliner, they proceeded to deliver a total of 386 examples from their factory at Prestwick Airport, Scotland.

From first taking to the skies on June 25th 1986 this particular machine, like any dedicated traveler, set out to see a bit of the world. Initially designated as N415MX, she flew in the United States for Eastern Airlines’ Eastern Metro Express. However, their demise in 1991 heralded its return to BAe in the UK as G-BTYG, until subsequently taking up a new roll in 1993 to operate as OY-SVJ for Billund based Sun-Air of Scandinavia where she remained for the following 13 years. Returning to the UK register she assumed the guise of G-OJSA, flying for Blue Islands, British North West Airlines and most recently Highland Airways before ultimately passing on to Diamond Air Charter and Linksair, who would today be operating her as G-JIBO on behalf of Varsity Express.

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So, what of the man who brought this all about? Martin Halstead, founder and Managing Director of Varsity Express, is a budding young entrepreneur who first landed in the public spotlight back in 2005 with the launch of Alpha One Airways, when he was just 19. Proclaimed by some as a ‘Baby Branson’, his first venture collapsed after just six weeks in the air. I asked him if he felt there was any kind of lingering resentment being directed towards his new venture, considering comments posted on networks like Pprune?

Alpha One was a long time ago, we had a key investor pull out unexpectedly and that lead to the collapse. Varsity Express is a completely different and well-funded proposition - we’re never going to be the next Ryanair and we don’t want to be either. The regional industry is a booming one at the moment and we’re a small, niche operator planning slow and sustained growth. I think it’s just a matter of time before we see more airports like Oxford and Gloucestershire. They [Pprune] just don’t seem to like me over there.

What were the circumstances which lead to the creation of Varsity Express?

I had just been made redundant [in Autumn 2009], when I received a call from a group of property owners who were looking to invest in an airline. They asked me if I was willing to help them.

It’s refreshing to see somebody like yourself, who loves aviation and flying with a passion, managing an airline. Do you still enjoy it as a hobby?

Sometimes there’s nothing better than to just head down to the end of the runway and watch the planes for a while. I love flying and sometimes I check out the forums [Airliners.net, Pprune etc..] – I’ll look out for your review in the Trip Reports section.

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With the departure time almost upon us the session is brought to a close as Mr Halstead stands next to his mother in front of the steps and gives a brief speech, thanking those assembled for attending. To commemorate the launch of Varsity Express and to christen the aircraft in the process, a bottle of Champaign is sprayed merrily over its registration. When asked if his mother’s presence had been planned in order to play up to the ‘Baby Branson’ image (Branson himself having appeared with his mother several times) Halstead dismissed the idea.

It’s just a coincidence, it’s the only time I really get to see her.

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Formalities over, it was time to commence operation, so whipping the camera back into my bag I climb the stairs of the little Jetstream to take my seat, 3A, in the middle of the cabin. Sitting down I see that a combination of ice crystals, fluid and dew have conspired to drape over the fuselage, presenting an impressionist blur of the reality outside and resulting in most windows being of little visual use until after take-off. However, there are much more interesting things to be looking at; like most small prop planes the Jetstream 31 has an open cockpit, through which I’m able to observe their preparations for the flight ahead.

OXF-EDI London Oxford Airport to Edinburgh International

Carrier: Varsity Express (Operated by Linksair)
Flight: LNQ 601
Aircraft: BAe Jetstream 31
Registration: G-JIBO
Date of First Flight: 25.06.1986
Seat: 3A
Block Departure Time: 08:00
Take off Time: 08:22
Block Arrival Time: 09:30
Touchdown Time: 09:42
Distance Flown: 297 miles
Total Flying Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Fare: £49.00 one way

It’s fair to say that nicer weather couldn’t be wished for; the morning being bright and mild compared to the damp and distinctly dismal conditions of previous days. Weather which is also ideal for flight training. Like bees to honey, the students at Oxford Aviation Academy had woken up, seen the conditions and decided on a day’s flying, with the result that Varsity’s flight is now dropping behind schedule as we wait in a line of Senecas for take-off clearance. We’re No.2 for take-off now and the Seneca ahead has just surrendered its position, meaning we can now enter the active backtrack to the threshold without further delay.

The pilots guide the aircraft onto the centerline of runway 19 ready for take-off, pausing briefly as a slight trim adjustment is made. Everything’s set; the final act is to ease the throttle levers gently forwards, accelerating the aircraft down the tarmac until we slip effortlessly skywards having used around 900m of the available 1,319m strip.

Varsity Express just became a reality and, glancing sideways, I can see a content Mr Halstead as the flight climbs towards the requested cruise altitude of 16,000ft.

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The Jetstream is an aircraft I’ve flown in several times previously, although up until this point the flights have been short sectors with a maximum duration of less than 40 minutes. So before stepping aboard today I did harbor reservations about how comfortable a flight lasting more than double this block time would be. There’s certainly no escaping the fact that noise levels onboard Varsity Express’ aircraft are higher than those experienced whilst travelling by train, and that there is significantly less room to move about the cabin. Yet, in my opinion, these negatives are comfortably outweighed by a flying time which is just a quarter of that for the same distance over land.

Comparing the four options available to consumers wishing to travel between Oxford and Edinburgh, it’s clear that the plane offers the shortest journey, even when factoring in time to travel between the city centers and airports at both ends. Taking two different approaches; booking discount tickets in advance and a flexible ticket, flying is the most expensive option on both counts. It is however one of only a few direct options available and considering the time saved appears to offer excellent value for money.

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As I continue to chat with other passengers our communication isn’t inhibited by the ambient noise. Meanwhile my legs are treated to a pitch of 32 inches, even if it doesn’t feel like quite that much in the A and C seats due to the curve of the fuselage, it’s still on a par with CrossCountry Trains’ Voyagers which predominantly ply the overland route to Scotland. The seat comfort itself is pretty average. Aside from a few wear and tear marks the presentation of the cabin is certainly commendable, not that anything other than immaculate should be expected for such an important event.

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The ticket price includes complementary in-flight refreshments. These are served by a single stewardess who works her way through the cabin from front to rear, taking orders and reappearing very promptly from the galley with my request for a coffee, along with a packet of shortbread fingers. This is nice, but the availability of a wider selection of refreshments in the terminal back at Oxford would have been equally pleasant, especially if the flight should be delayed for any reason.

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With the refreshment service completed Mr Halstead passes through the cabin, taking time to talk to each passenger individually. Further into the flight we have another opportunity to talk about the airline, specifically what comes next; despite the early addition of Newcastle flights, a conservative three to four month period of sustained growth is planned before Varsity Express considers taking further steps. Although no firm plans have been drawn up for future destinations, the possibility of commencing a leisure orientated service from Oxford to Newquay Cornwall Airport is mentioned – the possibility being to focus on holiday makers and the sizable second homes market present in the far South West. Without going into the complexities of crewing and the cost of making extra staff available, it would certainly make sense to increase utilisation of the Jetstream by giving it further work during the day.

Turning to look back out of the window I’m surprised to see that the flight has already left England, and minutes later commences its descent into Edinburgh. Down below, the snowy Pentland Hills make a beautiful sight as the Jetstream skirts a wide arc over the Firth of Forth, providing a great view over the city itself. Establishing the approach to runway 24, it touches down nimbly at 09:42 to record a flying time of just 80 minutes. I get the impression that I’m not alone in being impressed at the weather and conditions for this time of year – I don’t recall so much as a single bump having interrupted our course throughout the entire flight, whilst both the take off and touchdown were textbook.

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Upon exiting the runway we’re not heading towards Edinburgh’s main terminal as might be expected, but taxi instead down the mothballed runway 12/30 towards Greer Aviation’s executive terminal. You may be forgiven for thinking that this is a one-off PR stunt to woo those reporting on the event, but you’d be wrong. In a bold and potentially genial move, Varsity Express has chosen to operate scheduled commercial services between two executive, fixed base operations. This I believe is a first in the UK and could well be the way forward to gain market share in business orientated markets. It appears the decision was made fairly recently and is likely to be a major incentive to attract O/D traffic away from other forms of transport as well as from other carriers flying between the regions, especially once the service increases to double daily in both directions.

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After disembarking Robert Greer, left, Director of Greer Aviation at Edinburgh Airport, shakes hands with Varsity Express Managing Director Martin Halstead, right, as they stand with the flight crew who have just completed the inaugural service from Oxford.

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At this point passengers are presented with two options; to be driven by minibus to the main passenger terminal where the public transport interchange is located, or to exit directly from the executive terminal, the same choices being applicable in reverse should I be arriving for a flight. Choosing the executive terminal, I proceed into the modern and spacious lounge which doubles today as a reception room. The use of the executive terminal may well be beneficial, but to me the wording and information currently displayed on the Varsity website appears vague and slightly confusing regarding where the various facilities are located, especially to those who aren’t frequent travelers.

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Although this flight has now reached its destination, the aircraft will remain sitting idle on the ground for the next seven and a half hours. However, at the beginning of April a second daily flight begins and its utilisation will more than double.

The marketing potential of today’s event had obviously been noted, presenting an ideal opportunity to promote tourism via the new air link, so a guided tour around Edinburgh has been organised by Visit Scotland and Varsity Express to demonstrate its attraction to the media present.

Beginning as an informative rolling tour through the suburbs and new town, we make the first stop at Calton Hill, which affords a panoramic view over Edinburgh city centre to the South, whilst Leith and its docks spread out North to meet the Firth. Next stop is the Royal residence, Holyrood Palace, and the Scottish Parliament opposite, before moving onwards through the old town. A pause is made in Grassmarket to recall some of the many hangings which took place here, before continuing through the historic streets to reach Edinburgh’s most iconic and prominent landmark – its Castle.

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With my FlyBe flight onwards to Birmingham departing at 15:00, the time has unfortunately arrived for me to return to the airport, as I then have to travel overland to Plymouth by train. Whilst it’s a shame to leave early, I have other commitments to attend to, especially considering that I’ve effectively taken the three previous days off. So, wishing Martin Halstead and Varsity Express success for the future, I take my leave and head for the airport bus which will whisk me back out to Turnhouse in just under half an hour.



© Dan Gaston & Annthiea Photography
------------------------------------------------------------------------

Thank you and I hope you have enjoyed reading about the first flight of the UK’s latest new airline. Please don’t hesitate to ask if you have any questions or comments.


Dan :)
Last edited by ShanwickOceanic on 04 Mar 10, 13:39, edited 1 time in total.
Reason: Shortened loooooong dashed line

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miamiair (netAirspace FAA) 04 Mar 10, 13:29Post
Dan, that is an excellent post/article. Great pictures, interesting read. {thumbsup} {thumbsup} {thumbsup} {thumbsup} {thumbsup}

Best of luck to the start-up.
And let's get one thing straight. There's a big difference between a pilot and an aviator. One is a technician; the other is an artist in love with flight. — E. B. Jeppesen
Zak (netAirspace FAA) 04 Mar 10, 13:36Post
An excellent article, indeed! {thumbsup}

I hope that you will send Mr. Halstead this link as well! :)
Anyway, congratulations and good luck for his new airline! {thumbsup}
None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
mhodgson (ATC & Photo Quality Screener & Founding Member) 04 Mar 10, 17:53Post
Great article - I think they have also started a EDI-NCL link as well, so that should up the aircraft utilisation!

You make one point about the OAA students - that could actually be a major headache for the airline! On good flying days you can have 3 or 4 instrument flights trying to depart at the same time (despite a slot booking system giving everyone a 10 minute window). This is compounded by Oxford being outside of controlled airspace, which means departures must be procedural. Add a large number of helicopter and GA movements into this and you could well have a large delay!

Also, arrivals will be procedural as well - not a problem on a clear day as instructors will cancel IFR flight plans as soon as the aircraft departs the beacon to shoot an approach - but on a low-cloudbase day, you can be in the hold for quite some time!

It will certainly be a little unique operationally; but if Martin Halstead is an Oxford local he will know all about these headaches!
There's the right way, the wrong way and the railway.
JLAmber (netAirspace ATC & Founding Member) 04 Mar 10, 18:18Post
Awesome trip report Dan, well done {thumbsup}

Mr. Halstead clearly compiled his price comparisons before the recent rail-fare hikes. I couldn't find an advance ticket for less than £56 now, which makes his service appear even better value.

IMHO, one of the major challenges Varsity will face is convincing the people of the 'cycling cities' of Oxford and Edingburgh (especially those who are of the green persuassion) that flying isn't the work of the devil as many residents of supposedly trendier European cities tend to believe. I wish him luck.
A million great ideas...
PlymSpotter (Photo Quality Screener & Founding Member) 04 Mar 10, 20:03Post
miamiair wrote:Dan, that is an excellent post/article. Great pictures, interesting read. {thumbsup} {thumbsup} {thumbsup} {thumbsup} {thumbsup}

Best of luck to the start-up.

Thanks Victor, I did aim it as a hybrid between report and article, so I'm glad it came across that way.
Zak wrote:An excellent article, indeed! {thumbsup}

I hope that you will send Mr. Halstead this link as well! :)
Anyway, congratulations and good luck for his new airline! {thumbsup}

Thanks Zak, will do! :)

mhodgson wrote:Great article - I think they have also started a EDI-NCL link as well, so that should up the aircraft utilisation!

You make one point about the OAA students - that could actually be a major headache for the airline! On good flying days you can have 3 or 4 instrument flights trying to depart at the same time (despite a slot booking system giving everyone a 10 minute window). This is compounded by Oxford being outside of controlled airspace, which means departures must be procedural. Add a large number of helicopter and GA movements into this and you could well have a large delay!

Also, arrivals will be procedural as well - not a problem on a clear day as instructors will cancel IFR flight plans as soon as the aircraft departs the beacon to shoot an approach - but on a low-cloudbase day, you can be in the hold for quite some time!

It will certainly be a little unique operationally; but if Martin Halstead is an Oxford local he will know all about these headaches!

Thank you, and it is a very good point, I believe he did his flight training at Oxford, so I expect he'll know about this and could probably pull some favors if needed. He's going to be flying as a First Officer for Varsity, so you may have the unusual situation where the Managing Director is actually flying you. EDI-NCL-OXF-NCL-EDI starts up as a second rotation in early April.
JLAmber wrote:Awesome trip report Dan, well done {thumbsup}

Mr. Halstead clearly compiled his price comparisons before the recent rail-fare hikes. I couldn't find an advance ticket for less than £56 now, which makes his service appear even better value.

IMHO, one of the major challenges Varsity will face is convincing the people of the 'cycling cities' of Oxford and Edingburgh (especially those who are of the green persuassion) that flying isn't the work of the devil as many residents of supposedly trendier European cities tend to believe. I wish him luck.

Thanks John. I'm sure the green nimbies will be annoyed, they are at most things, yet I can't see the J31 using more fuel than 18 cars. A lot less probably. I actually made all the calculations in the chart myself, if you look about a month and a half ahead then there are occasional trains at £32, but I could only find a couple at most on any given day, and there weren't even that many £56 fares. Plus it'll be great fun once National Rail start knocking ten bells out of Birmingham New Street.

There's some video coverage available online from the day, and they interview a Eco-Ninja-NIMBY at the end. Oh, and look out for the guy in 3A on the right hand side {blush}



Dan :)
JLAmber (netAirspace ATC & Founding Member) 04 Mar 10, 21:07Post
PlymSpotter wrote:I actually made all the calculations in the chart myself


Oops, sorry {blush} It looks professional enough to have come from an airline press release. Are you looking for a job at Varsity? ;)

The chart in this article quotes the J31 as achieving 119 grams per revenue passenger kilometer, which (by my calculations) gives a figure of 15.42mpg (assuming the aircraft is carrying 18 pax). To carry 18 pax in any kind of comfort you would require 5 cars, which would need to achieve slightly over 77mpg to be similarly efficient. Given that the realistic figure is around half that, we can assume the J31 is around twice as efficient as travelling by car. I couldn't find any figures for an 18 seat bus so I e-mailed a local coach company I've dealt with before, who say their 20 seater gets 9.2mpg which, again, gives the J31 the edge.

PlymSpotter wrote:There's some video coverage available online from the day, and they interview a Eco-Ninja-NIMBY at the end.


I can't find that anywhere. Do you have a link?
A million great ideas...
PlymSpotter (Photo Quality Screener & Founding Member) 04 Mar 10, 21:46Post
JLAmber wrote:Oops, sorry {blush} It looks professional enough to have come from an airline press release. Are you looking for a job at Varsity? ;)

The chart in this article quotes the J31 as achieving 119 grams per revenue passenger kilometer, which (by my calculations) gives a figure of 15.42mpg (assuming the aircraft is carrying 18 pax). To carry 18 pax in any kind of comfort you would require 5 cars, which would need to achieve slightly over 77mpg to be similarly efficient. Given that the realistic figure is around half that, we can assume the J31 is around twice as efficient as travelling by car. I couldn't find any figures for an 18 seat bus so I e-mailed a local coach company I've dealt with before, who say their 20 seater gets 9.2mpg which, again, gives the J31 the edge.

Thanks, it took a little time to do, but I like the result :)

Those figures look right to me. I did a similar series of calculations but didn't include them because I only had 'take my word for it' figures for the train, and that brings too many other factors into the equation anyway. A HST gets 1mpg for each power car (0.5mpg overall) whilst a voyager gets around 1.5mpg, but they're not concrete. Mind you, if your friend is into larger vehicles, he should look at some of the coaches National Express have; they average 8.5mpg according to the onboard computer (so real world figures not showroom ones) with the various journies I've taken with them - highly impressive for a bus capable of seating 50 passengers and 70mph.
JLAmber wrote:
PlymSpotter wrote:There's some video coverage available online from the day, and they interview a Eco-Ninja-NIMBY at the end.


I can't find that anywhere. Do you have a link?

I do, but I forgot to post it {blush}

http://www.itv.com/meridian-west/local-airport-expansion11344/


Dan :)
Lucas (netAirspace ATC & Founding Member) 08 Mar 10, 20:16Post
I bookmarked this a couple of days ago, as I didn't have time to read it. Now that I have, it's excellent, and a pity about what has happened. {vsad}
JLAmber (netAirspace ATC & Founding Member) 08 Mar 10, 20:54Post
Lucas wrote:I bookmarked this a couple of days ago, as I didn't have time to read it. Now that I have, it's excellent, and a pity about what has happened. {vsad}


At least one of us got to experience this most short-lived of airlines and share their experiences with us, even if he did look slightly bored by the whole experience:

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{duck}
A million great ideas...
PlymSpotter (Photo Quality Screener & Founding Member) 08 Mar 10, 20:57Post
{rotfl} {rotfl} {rotfl}

It's a Jetstream 31 - just how interested can you be, especially when you're looking down at Leeds :))
PlymSpotter (Photo Quality Screener & Founding Member) 08 Mar 10, 21:00Post
Lucas wrote:I bookmarked this a couple of days ago, as I didn't have time to read it. Now that I have, it's excellent, and a pity about what has happened. {vsad}

Thanks Lucas, I'm glad to have been able to give an insight on them. Airlinerworld flew the next day too. Unfortunately the sh1t has definately hit the fan {facepalm}
Zak (netAirspace FAA) 08 Mar 10, 21:11Post
JLAmber wrote:At least one of us got to experience this most short-lived of airlines

I guess no airline could be too short-lived for PlymSpotter to fly them... :))
None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
PlymSpotter (Photo Quality Screener & Founding Member) 08 Mar 10, 21:53Post
Zak wrote:
JLAmber wrote:At least one of us got to experience this most short-lived of airlines

I guess no airline could be too short-lived for PlymSpotter to fly them... :))

You know I was just thinking this has to be one of the most short lived ventures ever. A friend flew a small carrier in Equador years ago, who only managed a couple of weeks with their F28 operation, but this beats even that.
cornish (Certified Expert - Aviation Economics & Founding Member) 09 Mar 10, 07:23Post
PlymSpotter wrote: Airlinerworld flew the next day too. Unfortunately the sh1t has definately hit the fan {facepalm}


No wonder it failed. an Airlinerworld article is often the kiss of death for an airline ;)

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