The city of Ruse in northeastern Bulgaria, the country’s fifth largest with a population of 150,000 people, does have an airport. And yet, those traveling to Sofia, all the way to the west of the country, will have to spend many hours on the road, reaching the capital by bus, car, or train. The reason? The airport in Ruse, like many other regional airports across Bulgaria, has been closed for years.
While Bulgaria is not among Europe’s biggest countries by territory, regional centers such as Ruse and Blagoevgrad, in the country’s southwest, lie more than 400 km apart, making any cross-country trip a gruesome affair. Is there something in the air, and can Bulgaria link its cities better by upgrading basic infrastructure? Maybe.
Plans are underway for the development of six sites across Bulgaria that allow for the landing of small airplanes. Provided that everything goes according to the plan, these sites will serve as small airports accommodating domestic and international flights. The sites in Balchik and Primorsko, on the Black Sea coast, Kazanlak in the center of the country, Kondofrey and Lesnovo near Sofia, and Ruse represent six of the 34 suitable facilities across Bulgaria.
Bulgarian airports on their way
The successful development of these sites is necessary for Bulgaria, a country with only four international airports – in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, and Burgas. The upcoming transformation, to be carried out under the supervision of the Ministry of Transport, is modeled after Europe, where hundreds of small airports have long been operating. The plan for the pilot project also includes cooperation with the Ministry of Defense so the new facilities can also be used by military aircraft.
Long gone are the days when Bulgarians could travel around the country by plane. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of abandoned airports in Bulgaria which in the past served as civilian airports, for example, in Silistra, Stara Zagora, and Vidin. Today, military airports are in even worse condition than civilian airports; we’re talking complete abandonment,” tells 3Seas Europe former military pilot Nikolay Kalev. “God forbid we ever need those, but military airports especially need to be maintained, no matter the cost,” he adds.
The development of Bulgaria’s network of airports gives hope to cities like Ruse. In 2014, the airport was transferred from the state to the local municipality. After a recent meeting with the chairman of the Association of the Bulgarian Aviation Industry, the mayor of Ruse Pancho Milkov announced that the terminal has been given a high rating and possibilities for restoring domestic flights, first to Sofia, have been discussed.
Move fast, appeal to travellers
Around 40,000 EUR are needed for the renovation of the terminal building, according to preliminary estimates, in addition to ensuring that the runway allows for planes with up to 70 seats to land on it. Before passengers buckle up, though, a study will be conducted among residents to see if there is enough interest in regular air connection with the capital to begin with. The road is long, but the municipality is already looking for potential investors.
Small airports might be exactly what a country the size of Bulgaria needs. Being able to move fast, but being spared the hustle of big international airports, will appeal to travelers. But turning such landing strips into international airports is a serious investment, and there needs to be clarity around the financial resources required at this stage. As work on this project only begins, there are already some promising signs.
The Sofia West Airport, near the village of Kondofrey, was expected to be able to accept C-class passenger planes already by the end of 2022, the Bulgarian Telegraphic Agency reported. Thus, the airport will be able to accommodate charter flights to the Black Sea, the famous skiing resort Bansko, and neighboring Greece. Built as a military airport in 1962, the facility was auctioned 20 years ago for 500,000 EUR. Currently, while operational, it is being used only for cargo flights. Once Sofia West Airport receives the final permission to accommodate large aircraft, some 200 jobs are expected to be created to support the airport.
Then, the journey can indeed begin.