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.