The Truth about Weather Issues at Sofia International Airport

Letters to the Editor | January 6, 2009, Tuesday // 00:00


Aviation has been my profession for years and I have worked for dozens of airlines and airports all over Europe.

I was deeply appalled by the insolence of Sofia Airport's management, who, resembling an ostrich hid their head in the sand, or more to the point - snow and proudly announced: "The situation at the airport is normal, there are no delays for the arriving and departing traffic. Everything is OK." And the media proudly spread this news....

Here is the truth however:

Saturday afternoon: One of the busiest days of the year in terms of traffic at Sofia Airport. Suddenly, something terrible happens: It is snowing!!!

Monarch Airlines flight MON4932 decides against landing in Sofia, as they are informed that they will face a 6 hour delay for take-off. Company flight MON2274 also decides against the landing and remains in holding pattern while awaiting instructions from the Airline's HQ in the UK .

01:06 AM 04/01 MON 2274 decides to return to Gatwick Airport, after flying over the whole of Europe due to the "situation in Sofia"

09:16 04/01 A Bulgaria Air flight contacts the control tower, asking what number they are for the de-icing bay (by this time a queue has formed at the de-icing point and aircraft are assigned numbers).

The Tower's reply is "Bulgaria Air, you are number 6 for de-icing, expect delay of 2.5 to 3 hours!" The reply from the aircraft's cockpit is self-explanatory: "Oh my God! What did we get ourselves into?!"

04/01 Lufthansa flight LH3489 02:30 hours delay
В В В В В В В В В  Lufthansa flight LH3439 02:35 delay

Austrian Airlines flight OS 800 diverted to SKG (Thessaloniki, Greece)

Communication records between Sofia Airport Tower and the aircraft on the ground and in the air at that time are available here:
Sofia Airport's code is LBSF

Simply choose the date, airport and time. Do keep in mind that all times given are GMT, i.e. 2 hors behind the local time in Sofia.
This is the first link, given as an example:
Sofia Airport is operating normally....?

Bulgarian National Radio/Horizont - 04 January 13:28 local time
"At the present time there are no delays for the departing flights, caused by the bad weather. Further to that, there are no cancelled flights." This is the official information given to the National Radio by Sofia Airport's Press center. "The only delay is a Bulgaria Air flight from Varna to Sofia, scheduled to land at 11:40" BNR/Horizont

This is what the actual situation looked like:
В Delayed:
04.01 07:00 scheduled UA9135 321 Munich T2 10:12 actual
04.01 07:00 scheduled DU795 143 Tehran T2 10:47 actual
04.01 07:15 scheduled FB471 319 Madrid T2 11:42 actual
04.01 07:45 scheduled FB495 320 London T2 12:12 actual
04.01 07:55 scheduled FB431 733 Paris T2 10:56 actual
04.01 08:00 scheduled FB319 319 Berlin T2 12:02 actual
04.01 08:20 scheduled FB449 735 Rome T2 13:23 actual
04.01 08:45 scheduled OS800 Wien T2 Cancelled

Diverted flights :

04.01 16:25 Thomson Airways TOM2967 738 Burgas T2 Delayed [i]
04.01 16:30 Thomson Airways TOM2793 733 Burgas T2 Delayed [i]
04.01 16:30 Thomson Airways TOM5703 738 Burgas T2 Delayed [i]
04.01 16:40 Thomson Airways TOM5673 737 Varna T2 Delayed [i]
04.01 21:15 Thomson Airways TOM1275 752 Varna T2 [i]

Darik Radio was informed by Sofia Airport's Press center that the airport is functioning normally and there are no cancelled or diverted flights. Further to that the longest delay is about 3 hours (affecting 5 departing flights) and the shortest delay is 20-30 minutes. Mr Stefan Tsvetkov announced that the delays are caused by a number of factors and not just the bad weather.

Today, 3 TV stations and at least as many radio stations quoted the Airport's Information service "The airport is fully functional and there are no problems....."

Perhaps there is a lying contest in the national media...!

As of this morning, up until 1 pm there is only one de-icing machine at the stand! Only ONE!!! The second one is kept as BACK-UP! This single machine is capable of treating 2 aircraft per hour! Maybe, when it was new it was able to handle at least 8. At least, because an aircraft that has just landed needs much less time to be treated with de-icing fluid (7-9 minutes).

Yes, but, after waiting in the de-icing queue from hours, instead of this quick treatment, the plane needs to be fully treated again, which as already mentioned takes atleast 30 minutes.

Snow removing procedures were initiated last night at 19:45 local time, only after the evening shift (airport ground staff) arrived at the their stations - why should the day shift start something if they are about to call it a day?!? This delay allowed the snow cover to build and affected all operations further down the line. I would also like to mention that we are talking of a snow cover of no more than 15 cm; it's not as if it is 50 cm!!!

The other problem is that the push-back trucks (the machines that push the aircraft away from the gates, barely manage to do it as their wheels cannot get traction on the snow covered taxiways, thus causing several large aircraft to remain blocked at their stands and incurring even further delays. It would have been funny, if it was not pathetic.
04/01 23:31 FB 361A to Kiev (scheduled departure 16:30) is still at its designated stand and has not received permission to start its engines. The flight is now 7 hours late and is facing at least 1 more hour in the de-icing queue!

05/01 00:27 FB361A finally takes of to Kiev (7 hours and 57 minutes late...) a new record!!
It is ridiculous having only to de-icing machines! I have no idea who is responsible for allowing only one of them to work and the other one to be kept as back-up, but that person should be fired immediately! The de-icing procedures set a new record in terms of delays....

And yet, the management of the Airport claims that all operations are according to plan?!?! Do they think we are idiots?

05 Януари 2009 в 07:43 am local time
No problems with the airport traffic in Bulgaria
Despite the difficult situation caused by the snowfall, there are no problems with departing and arriving aircraft in Sofia. The only canceled flight is to Bucharest. Varna Airport is experiencing no cancellations and Plovdiv Airort is not scheduled to receive any flights today.

The municipal transportation in Sofia is fully operational.
BNR (Bulgarian National Radio)

05/01 10:28 Just by looking at the Airport's website it is obvious that the chaos continues - there isn't a single flight that left on time or at least within a reasonable 10-20 minutes of the original scheduled time...!

11:00 am

Mr. Tzvetkov, from the airport's Press center again confirms for the National radio: " The situation is difficult, but we are working very hard and there are no problems at the airport. There are no cancelled flights, however there some delays. Incoming aircraft are processed immediately and we are doing our best to process the departing ones in the same manner. The departure delays are caused by the delayed arrivals."
05/01 13:11 Sofia Airport website reads :

Daily Flight Schedule
No connection to the server!

Perhaps the Airport's IT personnel is out on the runway, removing the snow!

05/01 13:53

Here are today's "normal" flights :

05.01 scheduled 06:00 FB975. 143Varna/Burgas T2 actual time 09:04

05.01 scheduled 06:00 W6601 320 London T1 actual time 06:49
05.01 scheduled 06:00 FB3363 320 Moscow T2 actual time 06:33
05.01 scheduled 06:00 LH3489 733 Frankfurt T2 actual time 07:02

05.01 scheduled 06:15 FB405В 320 Brussels T2 actual time 07:10
05.01 scheduled 06:50 LH3439 320 Munich T2 actual time 07:36

05.01 scheduled 07:00 FB461В 733 РђAmsterdam T2 actual time 08:38
05.01 scheduled 07:15 FB471В 319 Madrid T2 actual time 07:32
05.01 scheduled 07:45 FB495В 319 London T2 actual time 08:30
05.01 scheduled 07:55 FB431В 733 Paris T2 actual time 09:50
05.01 scheduled 08:00 FB319В 733 Berlin T2 actual time 08:48
05.01 scheduled 08:20 FB449В 735 Rome T2 actual time 09:31

05.01 scheduled 08:45 OS800В 100 Wien T2 actual time 09:54

05.01 scheduled 09:20 FB437В 735 Frankfurt T2 actual time 10:37
05.01 scheduled 09:30 FB803 AT4 Bucharest T2 actual time 10:02
05.01 scheduled 09:30 FB491В 142 Zurich T2 actual time 10:25
05.01 scheduled 09:35 NE3203 73W Wien T1 actual time 10:00

05.01 scheduled 09:55 OA382В 146 Bucharest /Athens T2 actual time 11:44
05.01 scheduled 10:30 8I1621 M82 Milan T1 actual time 11:29

05.01 scheduled 10:45 TK1428 738 Istanbul T2 actual time 12:05
05.01 scheduled 10:55 LY552В 763 Tel Aviv T2 actual time 12:38
05.01 scheduled 10:55 FB1573 763Tel AvivT2 actual time 12:38
05.01 scheduled 11:05 FB971 Varna T2 cancelled
05.01 scheduled 11:20 DNV4106 735 Rostov T1 actual time 13:11

05.01 scheduled 12:00 BGH4025 320 Dubai T1 actual time 12:59
05.01 scheduled 12:15 EZY8974 320 London T1 boarding 13:45

This is the situation as it currently stands and believe me, this really is normal, compared to yesterday.

Spas Vasilev

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