From simulation to airline: teenage entrepreneur lives in world of his own

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Pilot Martin Halstead is the founder of AlphaOne Airways, which began scheduled flights last week. Still a teenager, he funded the business using proceeds from the sale of a software company founded at age 17

How did you get involved in aviation?

It started when I was six. My father moved to Prague, so I had to fly over to see him. I fell in love with flying the first time I got in an aircraft. I knew there and then that I wanted to be an airline pilot. I started at Oxford Aviation when I was 17.

When I got older, I couldn’t afford to fly, so I started messing about with home computer flight simulators. The ones available weren’t up to the level of realism I was looking for, so I started learning programming – after eight months, I had come up with my own simulator. One of my friends pointed out that I had a marketable product there and over the next three years I got worldwide distribution for the software. I sold that company last summer.

I was joking with some of my friends at Oxford Aviation that the best way to get a job would be to start our own airline. We started thinking about it in June last year and started working full-time on it last November.

What things did you need to consider during the start-up?

There are so many areas of opportunity in aviation – we looked at around 1,200 business plans. After that, it was a case of selecting suitable airports and aircraft types, determining rates and so on. The hardest thing was getting certification. As a pilot, I actually feel a lot more comfortable about going into the industry having gone through that process and knowing how much emphasis is placed on safety.

While I was attending the World Route Development Forum in Copenhagen (Routes), I was approached by the Isle of Man government about using the Isle of Man as a base. It made a lot of sense for us – Routes really shaped the way the airline has turned out.

What will happen after the launch?

Our initial route is from the Isle of Man to Edinburgh, but we will add routes to Cardiff and Southampton in January, and then several others between January and May. We currently have one Jetstream 31, but three others are being delivered in January and February.

I am definitely planning to fly some of the routes myself. My main reason for doing this is to be an airline pilot. I am hoping to be rostered in as any other pilot would be, but realistically it will probably be on more of a part-time basis.

Would you recommend other people look at following a similar path to you?

Whether I would do it again knowing what I know now, I’m not sure. Every day brings a new challenge and it’s usually a brick wall. The worst thing is the delays – every time you delay your launch, your credibility gets dented. Actually, thinking about it, I probably would do it again.

It can be done for a lot less money than people realise. Air Southwest did it for around £1.25 million ($2.14 million), for example. It’s not so much the start-up capital that’s the problem as it is putting money in to keep it going. It costs us about £38,000 a week to just operate the Edinburgh route, so the profit margins with something like this are very small.

It can be hard to get financial backing – generally if finance people hear the word “airline”, they run a mile.

The only way I have been able to develop it is by going to events like Routes and talking to industry insiders – which isn’t to say if you have a good business plan, people won’t back you.

A lot of people look at me and think I must have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I don’t come from a family of any means. I want to convince people that anything is possible. It’s all about determination.