OUR AIRPORTS - FAR FROM PERFECT
Traditionally, the summer season is the best time to see how underdeveloped the process of modernization of Bulgarian airports is. Indeed, on paper the situation does not look that despairing at all. According to EUROSTAT, Bulgaria has three international airports - these in Sofia, Varna and Bourgas that handle more than 80% of the air traffic. In this respect Bulgaria ranks next to countries like the Czech Republic, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland and Switzerland.
However, statistical data are one thing and the reality sometimes - entirely different matter. This is what hundreds of thousands of passengers can witness at their arrivals
at the Varna and Bourgas airports
expecting to have a heavenly holiday in this paradise in the Balkans. How could paradise take place there, is another question, especially when we have in mind that the terminals of these airports look like the most problematic and crowded place on Earth. The space for passengers in peak hours is absolutely insufficient, the air conditioning is missing, or its functioning cannot be felt at all, and if more than two planes land at the same time, the work on luggage processing seems to get blocked.
The concessionaire of the two seacoast airports, the Bulgarian-German Fraport Twin Star Airport Management tries hard to patch up the situation, but its efforts turn out to be rather insufficient. Yet before the start of the last year's summer season, Varna Airport doubled its capacity for handling passengers by opening the temporary Terminal 5. Although it bears the name of the famous Heathrow's new terminal, the local one is rather humble in comparison. It cost mere BGN7MN and is located on a total area of 6,000 square metres with its ten check-in desks, two luggage conveyor belts, and six border-crossing points in the departure lounge and the arrival hall. There are also cafes, shops, offices for Border Police staff, Customs Office, travel agencies and tour operators. This way the facility may handle up to four simultaneously arriving or departing planes, or between 800 and 1,000 people. However, the capacity is not that impressive if compared to the number of passengers passing through the airport. In July their number came to 319,538, or about 11,000 per 24 hours. This is all the more astonishing because the figure represents a 10% decrease as compared to July 2007.
The situation is hardly likely to get any better
at least during the next two years. Then the new terminal is due to be ready and it is supposed to solve the problems with the servicing of passengers and their luggage.
Almost identical is the situation with the Bourgas airport which handled a total of 563,594 passengers in July, which makes around 18,800 a day. Without any doubt travellers would be glad to have better and higher quality services, which however may not be fulfilled until 2010.
At the end of 2007, Fraport Twin Star Airport Management said they intended to invest a total of EUR49.6MN in the two airports, the bulk of the sum, EUR33.5MN, going to the construction of a new modern terminal with a total area of 43,200 sq m. The project also envisages improvement of the adjoining infrastructure and purchase of new technical equipment for ground servicing to the extent of EUR6MN.
The project is good, but it is difficult to believe that the deadlines will be met in spite of the fact that Fraport Twin Star Airport Management signed a contract with the Bourgas-based architecture studio Attica-5 on May 15 this year. The contract means the local company was officially selected for a contractor of the design and management of the procedure for approval of the construction plan in both Varna and Bourgas. The preliminary cost of the work was projected to come to BGN60,000 and subsequently its price reached BGN90,000. Attica-5 said it would finish its work in 150 days.
In practice, a delay has been accumulated from the very beginning and the stage of planning, because the first public tender for the same job was stopped by the Commission for Protection of the Competition after it received an appeal from one of the candidates. That is why it will be very difficult now
to catch up on the time lost
in spite of the fact that the register of the Public Procurement Agency says Fraport Twin Star Airport Management has already sent preliminary notices on contracting the design and construction works on the new passenger terminals of Varna and Bourgas airports, as well as for the supervision of the two facilities.
The Government also does his best to make the work of the concessionaire easier. On May 22, it proclaimed for private-public property 101 buildings, managed by the Civil Aviation Administration and the Air Traffic Services Authority. The units are located on the territory of the country's two Black Sea airports, which in fact gave a green light to preparing the construction sites and preliminary works on the spots. After the buildings get demolished they will be written off from the balance sheets of the Civil Aviation Administration and the Air Traffic Services Authority, and we are yet to see when exactly this would happen.
At present, Bulgaria's only airport that can be compared with other EU facilities of the kind
is that in Sofia
In spite of the problems with its construction, Sofia airport has all extras one could need there: a parking lot at several levels, enough space and check-in-desks for handling passengers and their luggage, spacious restaurants and trade facilities. Sofia airport handled a total of 1,537,766 people over the first six months of the year, which is a growth of 19% as compared to the first half of 2006. The months with the highest number of passengers serviced were May and June, when about 570,000 people arrived or departed from the airport. In July the number of passengers came to 297,873.
Nevertheless, not everything is perfect in the capital, too. Leaving aside the abnormally high prices, the direct connection to Brussels Boulevard is still missing as is the amelioration of the landscape around the terminal. Sofia airport's largest problems, however, are not during the summer but in November, December and January, when there are fogs and mists.
The most appropriate solution to this problem seems to be
the Plovdiv airport
which because of its proximity to Sofia may be used in reserve. In 2002 it was opened for public use. It can also operate international flights, but has handled only 110,000 passengers last year. The explanation is simple - it can handle only 150 passenger an hour and because of that an automatic check-in system for the passengers' luggage was introduced in 2007. Still, representatives of the large international air carriers say that the border control and the passenger check-in does not meet the required level and there is not enough modern technical equipment for handling arriving and departing planes. The inspiring news here is that there is a chance the situation may get better. Last week Transport Minister, Peter Mutafchiev, said he was to take up with the modernization of the airport in Plovdiv. The evaluations show it would cost around BGN38MN. The project will be presented in a few days. A total of BGN18MN will be allocated to the construction of a new passenger terminal on a total area of 5 decares. The remaining BGN20MN will go on improvement of the adjoining infrastructure: parking lots, extension of the platform for planes, fencing of the airport and connecting it to the national road infrastructure. Of course, beforehand,
the problem with the ownership
will have to be solved, since there are two organizations carrying the name Plovdiv Airport - the single person public company has the licence for operating airport activity, but there is also a joint stock company, 58% of which is held by Alpha Finance, after it bought the stake from the Swiss TADO at the end of 2007. Minister Mutafchiev said that the Ministry of Transport will settle the things with Alpha Finance fixing the share it has in the airport, which at present is calculated at BGN8MN. There is no problem for the company to receive the licence on operating the airport's cargo transportation activities, he added.
Everything leads to the conclusion that the serious part of the work on Bulgarian airports is yet to come.