BMED - the world's worst airline

For those who understand the importance of customer service and its impact on word-of-mouth marketing, consider the following:

As my readers may know, I spend a great deal of time in Senegal, travelling back and forth to tend to the 4x4 export start-up business that I launched last year. While direct flights do exist on South African Airways (which flies from both JFK and Dulles directly to Dakar en route to Johannesburg), I usually prefer to take one of the European carriers - either because they allow me to stop in London where I can re-acquaint myself with the city I called home for 2 years, earn Frequent Flyer miles on Continental's OnePass program (AirFrance, Virgin Atlantic, and Alitalia are partners), or both.

Such was the case during a trip last fall. I flew to London on Virgin Atlantic, spent 3 days with friends, and then had a flight on British Mediterranean (BMED), which operates as a franchise of British Airways, from London to Dakar.

On this trip, I had 2 suitcases, one of which had some promotional materials inside so it was rather heavy. But I had looked on the British Airways website and saw that flights to Nigeria (in the same region as Senegal) allowed for 2 bags, so I figured I'd be okay. (continued...)

Arriving at Newark, the Virgin Atlantic staff informed me that one of the bags exceeded 23 kg, so I would have to pay an excess baggage fee. How much? $35. No problem.

Fast forward to London and my departure. I arrive for check-in and the British Airways clerk tells me, "Sir, you've got 2 bags here, your ticket only allows you one." Well, I'm going to Africa for a month, I explained, and furthermore I check the regulations for Nigeria (which is all that was listed on the website) and saw that 2 were permitted. "That's an arrangement with the Nigerian government. It doesn't apply to other African flights." Well, what can I do, I can't leave behind a suitcase! "I will have to charge you for the second bag." Okay, I figured, no big deal. How much? "£23 per kg." WHAT? I protested, but was told, either pay, or miss the flight. What's the total? "£536".

For those of you not accustomed to the British Pound, the exchange these days is roughly 2:1. So £536 is well over $1,000.

$1,000 for the privilege of bringing a bag into the cargo hold for a 5-hour long-haul flight. For perspective, my ticket for the flight was only about $900. I paid more for my suitcase than for myself! I suppose I should have ordered food and drinks for my suitcase as well.

Then, imagine my shock when I got on board the flight and saw that the plane was only at about 15% capacity with only about 30 passengers on board! So it's not as if space was at a premium.

Once I returned from the trip, I explained all of this to BMED in the hopes that they would rectify the situation. I was told by a British Airways agent when I landed in London and inquired that because I was transferring from the US, the more generous trans-Atlantic provision for baggage should be applied. Not so. BMED rejected my claim flat out.

I then discovered in February that British Airways on the whole had revised its excess baggage policy (presumably because of insane situations like mine) and now there were flat rates charged for excess baggage. Under the new policy, I would have paid less than 1/4 of what I was charged. So I recontacted BMED and asked that they refund the difference between the 2 charges. Rejected again. I mentioned that I was a long-time customer, and that I would be more than happy to accept vouchers for the difference, that I could apply to future flights. Rejected again.

Why they would be such sticklers about a regulation that had later elapsed because of its unfair nature was beyond me - air travel is a very customer-service oriented business. Yet they just didn't seem to understand the potential to damage a relationship with a would-be lifelong customer.

On the advice of a friend, I took my case to the corporate level and sent a letter to British Airways CEO Willie Walsh. I reiterated the entire case once again. I received a reply, this time from British Airways customer service. Unfortunately, it was equally as stubborn and inflexible.

Thus I will never be purchasing another British Airways ticket again. For those in the US, I urge you to take one of the American carriers, or Virgin Atlantic, should you wish to fly to London. For those in the UK, and anyone else who may have the opportunity, consider very carefully whether you wish to deal with BMED - I advise you against it.


sasa said...


Alternatively, just travel with hand luggage like I do ;)

Ok, not very practical for a one month stay, although you might be surprised.

I have a fight with Eurostar (about a ticketing mistake which cost me $600)...so I can imagine how angry you are.


Rime said...

George, such stories really annoy me and I go through similar experiences regularly here. Nobody who has experienced the American concept of customer service can ever be satisfied in Britain, where it simply does not exist.

I have had near screaming matches with what I would consider robots who refused to depart from the guidelines when there was a problem. Unfortunately, the only times I got across was when I actually raised my voice and threatened action unless something I requested was done.

Your letter to the CEO may have been too polite; you might want to reconsider a much stronger stance, and threaten to make this shameful treatment of a loyal customer public through your extensive network of colleagues in the US and in Africa.

Now you got me all worked up about them all: BA, BT, Thames, British Gas ...

Sasa, you would think hand luggage would be the solution, but have you noticed the hassle in Heathrow? Even before all this, a couple of years ago on a business trip to Dublin, I had just hand luggage (one night's stay) which included some clothes and my laptop without its case. They weighed it at the counter and declared it was too heavy for hand luggage (couple of kilos). But I don't have any other luggage, I pointed. Tough. They made me carry my laptop without its case and forced me to check the luggage.

With all my travels, I sometimes miss the chaos of Damascus airport!

Sorry for hogging the blog George. :)

George Ajjan said...

Rime, you never fail to make me laugh. :)

In fact, my first experience with BMED was a flight from London to Damascus in 2003, which put me on the ground 6 days before my luggage! In that case, they compensated me with frequent flyer miles and I was satisfied.

In this case, yes indeed I did issue a very stern warning to them and appealed in both hard and soft ways to their common sense (you'd think) about what might happen when a customer gets annoyed enough. The fact that I have been complaining about this for months should have indicated to them that I won't go down quietly.

To no avail. It's very foolish on their part. By giving me vouchers they could have assured future revenues, and had me boasting about them instead of badmouthing them.

$1,000 for a piece of luggage to fly in a near-empty cargo hold. Amazing. And plenty more will be hearing about it...

Rime said...

Just in case you're not checking comments on older posts, here is what I just wrote after watching your television appearance.

George, I hope my comment here will not sound patronizing because this is the last thing on my mind. I want to say a couple of things after having seen your television performance, now that I'm catching up on your blog.

First, as a media expert myself (having given hundreds of interviews), let me say how great you looked and sounded. You married form and content perfectly, especially in the second segment which was a lot more difficult to argue. You knew when to smile, when to look more serious, and when to stress points. I think you're going to have a great future as a politician - and that's just judging from your approach.

Second, you managed to rise above the partisan defense line, although in effect you're saying that the war on Iraq is illegal even in American terms. You probably convinced a lot of people with your warmth and your sincere approach that there's more than meets the eye. From a media point of view (not from a political one, where I would probably disagree with a few points), you were excellent.

Do you realize that I am actually going on the record, probably for the first time ever, to support a Republican? :)

Wassim said...

The marvels of British customer service from a country where even breathing can be made difficult.

annie said...

BA would ALWAYS leave my luggage stuck when I had to transit thru Heathrow.
Now I only travel between Europe and Damascus and allow me a plug for Syrianair : its prices are among the cheapest, for excess luggage they sometimes look the other way. OK, there is no caviar not even in first class but the staff is friendly and planes leave and arrive on time.
George, I would not give up; it is a lot of money.

Anonymous said...


Wouldn't it be easier to FedEx the unnecessary stuff ahead? How much does anyone really need between destinations?