A Whole New Old World – Bulgaria By Air (Travels In Eastern Europe – Bulgaria #3)

I would never have thought in my life that I would be running across an airport terminal in Paris to catch a flight to Sofia on Bulgaria Air. With a heart pounding, lung bursting, adrenaline surging sprint I made it just in time to catch my flight from Paris to Sofia. In retrospect, only the flight to Bulgaria should have been surprising for me. Running to the gate at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris is likely something many have done when they were unlucky enough to have connector flights in different terminals at the airport. There is no tram between terminals, thus the passenger is forced to take a shuttle bus that seems to make concentric circles around maintenance yards. Finally the bus arrives at an anonymous entrance a thousand meters from the nearest gate.  In my case, the distance to the gate was exaggerated since departures for Eastern Europe board in the terminal’s netherworld. Somehow I made my connection before the plane took off.

Sweat covered my forehead as I entered an entirely different world, transported from the noise and bustle of an overcrowded gate area to a mid-sized, abnormally quiet cabin. No one was speaking. The passengers, many of whom I assumed were Bulgarians due to their dark, rugged features, looked somnolent. I had imagined that a flight on Bulgaria Air would be chaotic, filled with beefy toughs and post-communist apparatchiks taking whatever seat they wanted. Instead, everyone quietly found their places and kept themselves busy reading books, magazines and newspapers. Conversations were carried out at a level barely above a whisper. This was the quietest, most orderly flight I had ever taken. Bulgaria might have been the poorest nation in the European Union, but their flag carrier certainly knew how to run an airline. It had not always been this way.

Bag tags - from Balkan Bulgarian Airlines circa 1978

Bag tags – from Balkan Bulgarian Airlines circa 1978

Crash Landing – Bulgaria Takes Flight
Bulgaria Air was created in 2002 as a successor to the bankrupt Balkan Bulgarian Airlines. The earlier iteration of the airline had its fair share of horrific incidents during four decades of communist rule. Balkan Bulgarian had first been known as TABSO, an acronym that literally translated means Bulgarian-Soviet Transport Aviation Corporation. The key word in that name being “Soviet” since everything was centrally controlled by the all-encompassing state, first by the Soviet Union and then later by Bulgaria’s communist authorities. The airlines used a fleet of Tupolevs, Ilyushins and Antonovs that were built in Soviet factories. By the 1970s Balkan Bulgarian was flying to over 20 countries on three continents. As service expanded so did the accident rate. Beginning in 1971 the airline suffered eight crashes over the next seven years, including two in Sofia. One of these occurred in the autumn of 1975 when an Antonov turboprop plane failed to gain enough lift at takeoff. The aircraft proceeded to slide down a ravine and into the Isker River. Incredibly, only three of the 45 passengers onboard lost their lives.

The two worst air disasters in the history of Bulgaria took place in 1978 and 1984, both involving Balkan Bulgarian flights with the Tupolev Tu-134 aircraft. The first happened within an hour of takeoff from Sofia. It made an abnormal descent which ended in a crash near a small village, all 73 onboard died. A definitive reason for this crash was never established. The second disaster occurred in Sofia when a flight crew attempted landing in a bad snowstorm, missing the runway by 4 kilometers (2.5 kilometers) and hitting a power line. The 45 passengers and 5 crew members were all killed. On a much more positive note, after the Iron Curtain fell, Balkan Bulgarian experienced only one major incident, when an aircraft overshot the runway in Varna. Fortunately, no one was injured. As for Bulgaria Air, it has never had a crash.

A Balkan Bulgarian Airlines Tupolev 134 on display at the Sofia airport

A Balkan Bulgarian Airlines Tupolev 134 on display at the Sofia airport (Credit: Gmihail)

Freedom For Foreigners – Approaching Bulgaria From The West
When I booked the flight I used two rationalizations on my decision to fly with Bulgaria Air. The first was that if it was unsafe no one would be flying it. Secondly, my ideas about Bulgaria were still stuck on Cold War stereotypes. Bulgaria was now a modern European country that was slowly, but steadily overcoming a tumultuous 20th century history. There was one other deciding and much more important factor in flying with Bulgaria Air, it was the cheapest option. The flight turned out to be smooth and pleasant with excellent customer service. The level of service was as good or better than any short haul flight I had taken in the United States. Then again that is not saying very much.

Between dozing on and off, I spent much of the flight looking out the window, scrutinizing the landscape carefully as we got closer to arrival. The terrain of the Balkans was impressive from 20,000 feet. Looking over the rippled mountains a strange feeling swept over me. This land had been terra incognita to outsiders only twenty years ago. Flying over or into Bulgaria was risky. It could only happen with proper planning and permission from the authorities. Now all one needed to do was pay for a ticket through a few simple clicks on the internet and they were free to go anywhere in or over Bulgaria. When Bulgaria went democratic, it not only brought capitalism and consumer products, but also tourists. Millions of them who came to enjoy what they considered to be an exotic locale filled with natural beauty at bargain basement prices. The change of system had brought freedom for Bulgarians and also foreign travelers. A whole new Old World had opened and I was looking out of a plane window down on it.

Taking flight - Bulgaria Air

Taking flight – Bulgaria Air (Credit: Aldo Bidini)

The Moment Of Arrival – The Moment Of Reckoning
The plane slowly began its descent. I was almost there. My palms grew sweaty, my pulse quickened. I began to focus on what would come next, mainly my luggage and a pickup I had arranged weeks ago. I began to worry. What if the pickup failed to show? Was I willing to try my luck with the less than reputable taxis of Sofia? They had a well-deserved reputation for fleecing naïve foreigners. Would I be descended upon by touts exhorting all kinds of false promises? I tried to push these thoughts out of my mind by focusing on the fact that I would need to get my luggage first. That is if my bags had made it. A moment of reckoning with both real and illusory fears was about to arrive.

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