It has not have actually launched flights from Sofia, but Irish budget carrier Ryanair has already seeing strong enough demand for its flights from the Bulgarian capital to confirm plans to open a base at Sofia Airport from this coming winter. The growth continues the carrier’s advance into Eastern European markets and deepening its competition with the region’s largest low-fare carrier, Wizz Air.
Ryanair will station three Boeing 737-800s in Sofia from the end of October 2016 to support a network of 90 flights across 21 routes and which are forecasted to deliver around 1.5 million passengers per annum. This will position the carrier among the leading operators at Sofia Airport accounting for around a quarter of future traffic.
The airline first revealed plans to serve Sofia, its second destination in Bulgaria after Plovdiv, in August 2015 and is due to introduce a daily service from London Stansted from April 25, 2016. It will now actually inaugurate flights from the city earlier the same month with the introduction next week of a twice weekly link from the Italian city of Pisa.
Over the past few months as it has rolled out its winter network plans across its existing bases, it become clear that the carrier had bold intentions to grow in the Bulgarian capital and the potential for a base operation in the city, its first in Bulgaria, became a clear option.
In January this year reservations were opened for a daily winter service to Brussels Charleroi, a three times weekly Dublin link and the continuation of the summer routes to London and Pisa into the winter schedule. The following month new daily winter flights to Berlin, Cologne / Bonn, Milan Malpensa and Rome Ciampino, a five times weekly Madrid service and four times weekly Barcelona and three times weekly Hamburg routes were also added to its winter network.
Now, with the confirmation of the base operation, Ryanair has confirmed a further eleven route from Sofia, comprising a daily link to Athens, three times weekly flights to Birmingham, Edindhoven and Hamburg and twice weekly services to Baden Baden, Castellon, Glasgow, Liverpool, Memmingen, Stockholm and Venice. The airline will also introduce a second daily rotation to London Stansted and a third weekly frequency to Pisa.
“This significant growth is an integral part of our continued expansion plans for both Bulgaria and Eastern Europe, as we connect Sofia with Europe’s key centres of business with high frequency business-friendly services,” said David O’Brien, chief commercial officer, Ryanair.
Major infrastructure investments have helped the Bulgarian capital to emerge as a developing business and tourist destination in Eastern Europe. Last year more than four million passengers used Sofia Airport for the first time in its history and during the first two months of this year traffic is up a massive 14.2 percent versus the same period in 2015. Since the start of the Century passenger traffic has almost quadrupled thanks to consistent double-digit year-on-year growth through most of the 2000s.
Activity at the airport is dominated by Wizz Air (1.18 million passengers in 2015) and national carrier Bulgaria Air (1.10 million passengers in 2015) and the arrival this year of Ryanair will see the three airlines collectively account for almost two thirds of traffic.
Ryanair is taking a more aggressive development stance in Central and Eastern Europe and its network growth shows that it appears to be going on the offensive against Wizz Air. Data from intelligence provider, OAG, shows that last year, Ryanair boosted its capacity in Central and Eastern European markets by 23.3 percent. This year’s summer schedule in the region is 14.9 percent larger than what was offered during last year’s record figure (NOTE: decline in winter 2016 schedule in below chart is due to schedule not currently being displayed in OAG Schedules Analyser).
Elsewhere, Ryanair has confirmed its winter schedules from two further UK airports. The airline will offer its largest ever programme from Birmingham where it will grow by around 45 percent as it expands its network to 21 routes and forecasted annual passengers to 1.9 million, while at Leeds Bradford growth of 20 percent to 1.1 million annual passengers will see its network grow to 12 routes.
At Birmingham, in addition to the new three times weekly Sofia service, Ryanair will extend its summer flights to Madrid (four times weekly), Murcia (twice weekly), Verona (twice weekly) and Vilnius (twice weekly) into the winter schedule. It will also boost flights to Barcelona (daily), Fuerteventura (twice weekly), Gran Canaria (twice weekly), Malaga (five times weekly), Malta (three times weekly) and Tenerife (four times weekly).
At Leeds Bradford a new twice weekly flight to Gran Canaria will be introduced by Rayanair this winter, while its twice weekly summer link to Faro will be extended into the winter months. The airline will also boost frequencies to Alicante (five times weekly), to Routes Europe host, Krakow (four times weekly), Lanzarote (three times weekly) and Tenerife (three times weekly).