Bulgaria Air has started analyzing the next steps of its fleet expansion and renewal, and a decision on a new aircraft order could happen before summer, according to CEO Yanko Georgiev. “Negotiations are ongoing with at least two providers of single-aisle aircraft,” Georgiev told AIN. “We would like to evolve to a single type fleet to achieve cost reductions and optimize processes like pilot training and maintenance.” The Sofia Airport-based carrier currently operates six Airbus A319/320s and four Embraer E190s on a network spanning 22 scheduled destinations in Europe and the Middle East. “The aim is to grow the fleet to possibly 15 narrowbodies over the next four to five years,” noted Georgiev, an A320 captain. The larger fleet would support the airline’s scheduled flights, as well as its growing ACMI business and charter ops.
Bulgaria Air inked its first ACMI agreement March last year, with Air Italy, to help fill the Italian airline’s capacity gap caused by the grounding of its three Boeing 737 Max 8 jets. The wet-lease deal with Air Italy initially involved one A320 but the sides extended it to cover two A320s and two E190s this winter. “We have a quite active charter flying program in summer, but winter is the low season. We are a small airline and cannot afford to park our aircraft for a couple of months so we will for sure further develop the ACMI business and diversify our model,” Georgiev said. The ACMI contract also led to a deeper codeshare agreement, and Bulgaria Air now feeds into Air Italy’s network—including its five North American services—at Milan Malpensa.
The airline last year carried 1.3 million passengers, up 3.7 percent over 2018. Load factor averaged 85 percent. “Our passenger traffic has been growing on average by three to four percent per year since the privatization of the company and we anticipate continuing this growth,” Georgiev asserted. “Bulgaria is becoming more attractive for tourists and the country’s economy is growing as well.”
Bulgaria Air applies a full-service business model, including a fully-fledged business class and complimentary F&B and checked-in luggage in economy. “We are one of the few European airlines still offering a full-service onboard on short and medium-haul flights,” Georgiev noted. “It works for us,” he said, insisting the airline broke even in 2018 and expects to report a profit for 2019.
The airline considers itself Bulgaria’s national airline, even though the state does not hold any shares in the company. The government in 2002 established Bulgaria Air as the successor to its fully-state owned flag carrier Balkan Bulgarian Airlines, which at the height of its success ranked as the second-largest airline in Eastern Europe after Aeroflot, operating a fleet of 50 long-haul and short-haul aircraft on a worldwide network. The disintegration of the USSR led to the collapse of Balkan Airlines in 2000. In 2007, the Bulgarian government privatized Bulgaria Air and the airline now operates under the ownership Bulgarian holding company Chimimport.
As part of its diversification strategy, Bulgaria Air holds 24.9 percent in Lufthansa Technik Sofia and participates in a joint venture with Swissport for ground handling services, with Amadeus for IT, and with Lufthansa Group’s LSG Sky Chefs—whose European portion is being acquired by GateGroup—for the provision of on-board catering in Bulgaria.