British Mediterranean Airways (BMed) can trace its history back to October 1994 when a group of private investors led by Lord Thomas Hesketh, decided to create an airline to operate medium-haul services from Britain to the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.
With an Airbus A320 (G-MEDA) leased from Indian Airlines and slots acquired at London Heathrow Airport the airline launched flights on October 28 to Beirut, Lebanon.
As British Mediterranean quickly established its name and found success, it added Damascus and Amman to the network a year later in direct competition with British Airways (BA), plus a fortnightly charter service to Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.
British Airways Franchise
Rather than compete with this new entrant, in March 1997 British Mediterranean was invited to enter in to a franchise agreement with BA. All BMed planes were painted in full British Airways livery, set out with the same cabin product and staff would wear the BA uniform. Flights operated under the flight numbers BA6500-6669 and passengers were able to earn miles and use the BA Executive Club.
To allow integration of both carriers networks BMed moved its operations from Terminal 3 to Terminal 4, the then home of British Airways, and the UK’s flag carrier removed their own competing services to Beirut, Damascus and Amman.
Speaking of the franchise, BMed’s CEO David Richardson said: “The franchise partnership with British Airways combines BMed’s widely acknowledged high standards with British Airways’ worldwide marketing network to the benefit of all our customers.”
Meanwhile BA’s then CEO Willie Walsh commented: “British Airways’ franchise agreement with BMed enables customers to fly across a far more extensive range of routes in the region than we could offer ourselves, with competitive services of the highest quality and connections onto the British Airways extensive worldwide network.”
While operating as a franchise partner meant that BMed had the benefit of BA’s popularity and marketing, it also meant that the airline had to operate at a much lower cost base than its rivals to attract passengers and generate sufficient margins to pay its fees.
Political unrest at many of the destinations the carrier served also had a negative impact on BMed’s finances. Indeed, British Airways had previously stated that they had lost millions of pounds when it had recommenced flights to these turbulent Middle-East nations, after avoiding the region for nearly a decade.
Then came the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US and with the ensuing Iraqi War creating further travel restrictions across the Middle East, British Mediterranean was struggling.
The airline leased a pair of 149-seat Airbus A321s in early 2002 to expand its network – G-MEDF and G-MEDG.
In March 2004 the carrier was forced to permanently drop its link to Tbilisi in the former Soviet state of Georgia after trying for months to reach an agreement with the countries authorities to reinstate flights. The thrice weekly service had been dropped in 2003 following a dispute with the countries civil aviation administration. A source said that the Georgian authorities blocked BMed’s entry in order to protect private carrier Airzena, which stood to benefit from traffic generated by work on the high-profile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline project.
But BMed plowed on and in 2004 carried 277,000 passengers with a fleet of six Airbus A320 aircraft serving 18 destinations in 17 countries.
In celebration of its first ten years of service, British Mediterranean was rebranded as simply BMed in November 2004, a name that the carrier had been referred to since its inception. Management claimed that the shorter name and revamped logo would help strengthen its image, reflecting the current market position and future expansion plans.
Richard Cann, General Manager Commercial, BMed, said “The strong logo and shortened name will certainly be easier and more recognisable for customers and staff to use and will serve the airline’s future expansion plans well.”
The airline was also granted The Queen’s Award for Enterprise for ‘Outstanding Achievement’ in 2004, the UK’s most prestigious award for business performance.
In April 2005 BMed placed a firm order with Airbus for seven Airbus A321s with the first (G-MEDL) delivered on January 19, 2006. At the time the airline had a fleet of three A320s and three A321s.
“We have been delighted with the performance of our A320s and look forward to adding the A321 to our fleet,” said Des Hetherington, British Mediterranean’s Chief Executive Officer. “We see the new aircraft as a cornerstone for further expanding our successful operations to the Middle-East and Central Asia.”
Indeed the arrival of the A321 allowed the airline to begin offering non-stop scheduled services from Heathrow to Tehran which, at a distance of over 2,380nm/4,400km, was one of the longest A321 sectors in the world. British Airways had previously served the route using its Boeing 777s.
Powered by International Aero Engines V2500s the jets were fitted in a dual-class layout with 149 seats, 31 in Club World and 118 World Traveller. G-MEDL would be joined by G-MEDM in June 2006, however the remaining five on order would never be delivered.
Controversial Ghost Flights
In March 2007 it was revealed that BMed had been operating “ghost flights” between London Heathrow and Cardiff Airport six times per week since October 2006. The flights were laid on to allow the airline to maintain its incredibly valuable slots at Heathrow, unused after the airline dropped flights to Uzbekistan.
The company was widely criticised for the move by environmentalists. However many also jumped to BMed’s defence, blaming the flawed “use it or lose it” system whereby if an airline does not use a slot on 80% of occasions over six months then the slot will be lost which, at an overcrowded airport like Heathrow, is something airlines simply cannot afford to do.
“The Uzbek market had really collapsed, but we knew we would want to use those timings again this summer,” BMed CEO David Richardson explained. “It wasn’t the ideal thing to do, but we wanted to keep hold of it.”
“It is possible to do it more cheaply than we have done — in theory,” Richardson continued. “Our difficulty was that with the timings we had we needed an airport that was open all night. We looked at the alternatives, including Manston, and Cardiff was the best option.”
Richardson went on to explain why the airline chose to use one of its Airbus A320s to operate the route: “You could use any type of plane, but the airport gets a little upset with you if you use a little Piper Warrior, say. We did not want to get on the wrong side of the airport on that, so we used the Airbus.”
In 2006 BMed appointed financial advisors Rothschild and KPMG to help it raise £20 million in fresh capital to expand its fleet and network and offset two years of heavy losses.
The airline had expected to make a further pre-tax loss of more than £15 million that year, due to the closure of Beirut Airport following the war in Lebanon meaning the route, one of the airlines biggest money makers, had been suspended between July 13 and September 6. The companies biggest financier, Syrian-born Wafic Said, whose family owned 49% of shares then decided to withdrew their support and so it was imperative that the airline found a buyer.
Discussions began with the Mikati family, one of Lebanon’s leading business groups but subsequently fell through. Rumours that franchise partner British Airways may have been interested in taking a controlling stake were quickly quashed when BA then CEO Willie Walsh said: “We were aware BMED had financial difficulties. We were not interested in buying it.”
In February 2007 it was announced that British Mediterranean Airways was to be taken over by another Heathrow incumbent – bmi – for £30 million.
bmi at the time was developing its own medium and long-haul network and with BMed operating a fleet of Airbus A320/A321s, the same aircraft as bmi, from its main operating base the takeover seemed a perfect fit.
The new owners quickly set about developing a refreshed mid-haul product, while a dedicated project management team led by Tim Bye focused on integrating BMed’s operation. However the merger was complicated. Harmonising IT systems, sales and marketing, facilities, engineering and all of the BMed staff took time but was subsequently sorted on schedule and within budget.
The British Airways franchise ceased on October 27 that year and the airline was fully absorbed in to bmi. Aircraft were gradually painted in to the new owners livery and flights changed to the bmi flight code.
The first ex-BMed flight to take to the skies was Airbus A321 (G-MEDL) on October 28, 2007 bound for Baku in Azerbaijan and the British Mediterranean/BMed name was gone from the skies forever.
In a further twist in the tale of BMed, bmi would be taken over by the former franchise partner British Airways in April 2012. Today a number of BMed’s aircraft remain in the BA fleet including Airbus A320 – G-MEDK and all five of the formers A321s.
Addis Ababa, Aleppo, Alexandria, Almaty, Amman, Ankara, Baku, Beirut, Bishkek, Cairo, Damascus, Ekaterinburg, Freetown, Khartoum, London (Heathrow), Luxor, Prague, Tashkent, Tbilisi, Tehran, and Yerevan
|G-MEDK||Airbus A320-231||Still in service with BA.|
|G-MEDF||Airbus A321-231||Still in service with BA.|
|G-MEDG||Airbus A321-231||Still in service with BA.|
|G-MEDJ||Airbus A321-231||Still in service with BA.|
|G-MEDL||Airbus A321-231||Still in service with BA.|
|G-MEDM||Airbus A321-231||Still in service with BA.|
© Jet Back In Time by Lee Cross