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BMED [now part of BMI]

30,000ft above the Silk Road

[Editor’s note: BMED was absorbed into BMI in October 2007.]

BMED (formerly British Mediterranean Airways) is a franchise of British Airways which operates routes to the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. British Mediterranean’s schedule currently includes the following destinations:

Aleppo, Alexandria, Amman, Baku, Beirut, Bishkek (via Tbilisi), Damascus, Luxor, Tbilisi, Teheran (via Baku) and Yerevan (via Tbilisi).

With these franchise operations British Airways have opened up connections to many cities along the ancient Silk Road which so far are served only by a handful of European carriers. And because the days of the silk caravans have long gone by, travel on these routes is so thin that it wouldn’t justify the employment of BA’s own 767, 777 or 747 wide-body long-haul aircraft. Thus BMED’s smaller Airbus 320s are put to good use, and have been fitted with extra fuel tanks to do the job.

Practical answers to philosophical questions

It can be argued whether the Caucasus destinations of Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan geographically still belong to Europe, or form part of the Asian landmass. BMED have chosen not to participate in such solely philosophical discussions and have fitted the A320s with a complete intercontinental interior set-up, albeit without a First Class. Fair enough for what is typically a five- to six-hour flight.

Business Class: BMED comes up with the same (old) Club World cabin which – depending on viewpoint – we have come to love or hate on board British Airways, including the famous “Cradle Seats”. Although these seats have meanwhile reached the maturity of a middle-aged Bordeaux wine, I think they are still among the best in the whole airline industry. Excellent seat comfort with lumbar support and far recline, and eight-channel personal video are all you could wish for. Yet there are no credit card phones or plugs for laptops on board the small Airbus fleet, but this may prepare you well for the lack of infrastructure to be expected at your eastern destination.

Economy Class: Expanding on a theme of Middle Eastern history, BMED have reinvented the Babylonian Captivity on board their flights. The 31-inch seat pitch in economy class will remind you of charter flight standards. And because these flights are usually packed to the last seat, an economy class journey with BMED can be quite torturous. Relief comes in the form of relatively good in-flight entertainment. LCD screens are installed in every third row, with very good visibility, plus twelve-channel in-seat audio. That’s not as good as the personal video on board BA’s new Boeing 777s, but an advance on the greater part of the British Airways fleet. A typical six hours’ flight with BMED will come with two movies, two or three comedy series and cartoons, plus news and a travel feature.

The Last Crusade

Stoning still being a common punishment for crime in Iran, the catering chef of BMED would be ill-advised to board one of his airline’s flights to Teheran. Passengers to Damascus may feel reminded of the nine crusades between 1096 and 1272 AD. The latest crusade comes in the form of English food on board flights to the Middle East, and is once again destined to bring ailment to Damascus.

Meals, snacks and especially the wine collection are as bad as the sufferings on board British Airways. The meals are always overcooked and without much taste, and the English White makes me run for the toilet to throw up. BA and BMED alike serve what I consider the worst meals of any European “quality” airline.

One overnight flights, i.e. most of BMED’s outbound flights to the East, no breakfast or morning coffee is served. Some passengers may prefer the extra sleep on a flight that arrives at five in the morning, but I would prefer to be given a choice between sleep and breakfast, as practised on other airlines.

If you request a coffee outside the regular service times, this comes as a lousy Nescafé instant coffee. The effect this has on me is similar to that described for the English white wine.

From clashes to crashes

In a world where everybody is expected to speak English, British Mediterranean pilots appear somewhat unprepared for the language and culture clashes with Russian-speaking ground controllers. The experience of a landing approach to Tbilisi aborted at the last minute, apparently after descending towards the wrong runway, has left me feeling a bit uneasy about this airline. Human error and misunderstandings between pilots and ground staff being the main reason for (near-) crashes over ex-Soviet territory, you would expect that pilots who regularly fly these routes received special training.

No such culture clashes are to be expected in the passenger cabin. Unlike British Airways’ own staff, BMED flight attendants come from a variety of countries and are multilingual. If you fly with them regularly you quickly get to know the crew. It’s a small airline with few staff and a personal touch.

A modern-day Odyssey

Flights to Bishkek, Teheran and Yerevan are operated with intermediate stops in Baku or Tbilisi. As a result travellers to these destinations have to reckon on an extra one to three hours of flight time and another hour spent on the ground. Extra hours spent in your seat, for there is no disembarking on ground stops. Thus what could be a swift seven hours’ transfer to Bishkek turns into a twelve-hour odyssey.

Sadly you cannot book the onward segments alone, say from Tbilisi to Yerevan or from Baku to Tehran. British Airways have failed to negotiate so-called “beyond rights” or “fifth freedom rights” with these countries which would allow them to pick up passengers in a country other than the UK and fly them to a third country.

Competitor Lufthansa demonstrates that this is possible with its Frankfurt-Baku-Ashgabat route, which allows bookings for the second segment alone and cuts travel across the Caspian Sea by a day. Especially on BA’s Tbilisi-Yerevan route this would be highly desirable, as this is the only flight connection between the two cities, and road travel takes a whole day for a mere 300 miles.

Prices

Economy Class return tickets start at around £250-£300 for Middle East destinations, £400 for the Caucasus, and £600 for Bishkek. Full-fare Business Class return tickets come at £1,500-£1,800. Call that expensive and you are right, considering that the same money could also buy you a ticket to South East Asia, twice as far. But on most of these routes other airlines will charge you exactly the same, because these are very thin routes with little competition or tourist traffic.

Alternatives

For a handful of destinations served by BMED, you should consider alternative offers which are either significantly cheaper or more convenient in terms of routing and transit times.

Bishkek: Turkish Airlines offer three flights per week to Bishkek compared to BMED’s one per fortnight, and prices start at around £400 return in economy class. You don’t need to take the longer flight time and ground waiting in Tbilisi, but can plan a proper transit or stop-over in Istanbul. Alternatively, Lufthansa, KLM and Swissair offer direct flights to Almaty with a bus transit to Bishkek. The total travel time is around the same as with BMED, but more comfortable. However, flights to Almaty are even more expensive, at around £700 economy return. Watch out for occasional specials from KLM, though.

Tbilisi: Airzena Georgian Airlines offer business class return fares at £600 from Frankfurt to Tbilisi. Add to that £350 for a business class ticket to/from Frankfurt and you still save £500 compared to BA’s full fare.

Alexandria & Luxor: These being increasingly popular tourist destinations, you should be able to find charter flights for £150-£200 return, i.e. half the price of a BA economy class ticket, depending on season.

Conclusion

Despite the irony I have applied in some passages, BMED are generally a reliable airline with friendly service. Meals, never a strength of British Airways, won’t be a great surprise to seasoned expat travellers with Executive Club baggage tags in shiny gold or silver. Inconvenient routings and rather expensive; the latter is probably not your problem, but may unnecessarily blow the travel budget of the FCO, company or NGO that pays for your travel. 6 out of 10 points in total.

British Mediterranean Airways

Airline Code: KJ

BMA website

British Airways flight Nos BA 6700-6749

Flights depart from Heathrow Terminal 4.

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