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December 2017 Newsletter


Twenty-Five years on and it’s that time of year again when we re-cap some of the stories that have grazed our newsletter throughout the year. Of course these are just a snippet of some of the many stories, facts and figures we commented on and we hope that you will continue to read our often tongue in cheek offering each month.

In the meantime, may you all have a peaceful festive season and a successful 2018.

Mark Thomas

Managing Director

HRG Bulgaria

January – gone but not forgotten! One day the truth may appear surrounding the disappearance of  Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 …but not yet:-

Search stopped.

The needle in the haystack search masquerading as the hunt for the Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370 that went missing three years ago has been suspended.

The cessation comes after a fruitless search of 46,300 square miles of the Indian Ocean where the plane is thought to have come down. Just seven pieces of the plane’s wreckage have been recovered, the discovery of which and the location of where they were discovered seemed to ring bells that the search was in the wrong place all the time.

The plane was in fact spotted flying over the Maldives by many people but that fact, for some reason, was ignored. Sic


February – our editorial looked at the way people, thanks to Low Cost Airlines, are now adapting their leisure breaks to shorter durations. This trend not only is visible in the local ski market but also reflects the wider pattern for shorter yet more frequent breaks generally: a fact that has massively benefited the local GDP:-

The Short Ski

How fast do we now see time honoured assumptions changing almost before our very eyes? The rate of change is gathering momentum at a breakneck pace and this not only applies to technology which seems to find some way to permeate into our everyday life, but also in the way we, as people, are changing our work and leisure behaviour.

Take the way we spend our leisure time: there are now more things available to us and this is no derived from simply new sources of leisure activities, but more about how we can all more easily access those leisure products that have always been out there. Think skiing; hardly a new sport or activity by any stretch of the imagination but think back just a few years ago and for the vast majority of people taking a ski break this meant a 7 day Saturday to Saturday or Sunday to Sunday package and indeed, even the ski resort hotels were (and sometimes still are) geared up only for 7 night duration visitors. If we look at the by gone era of Ski tourism in Bulgaria, Saturday was the main changeover day for the then big ski resorts of Borovets and Pamporovo. This was of course “”pre Bansko’” which came into the equation around 2007/8 but which initially was also a 7 day focused ski destination, locals excepted.

This was however the time that Bulgaria joined the European Union and directly or indirectly, it was also the time when the Low Cost Airlines across Europe started to gather traction in the public domain across Europe. I recall writing in the UK Financial Times in January 2007 about the longer term possibilities of Low Cost Airlines arriving on the local scene and the impact this would have. Fast forward a mere seven years and the impact Low Cost Airlines are now having on Bulgaria is nothing short of incredible.

So called Low Cost Airlines now transport around 50% of all passengers leaving/arriving at Sofia Airport but not only is this figure impressive, as is the growth of passenger traffic generally, it is the allied impact they have had on the country’s vital GDP source of Tourism revenue that is the more interesting.

The ski holiday was, as we have described, a generic 7 day stay; this was the same in Bulgaria as it was across other European resorts. The ski holiday was also a huge time commitment for people regardless of the costs involved, bearing in mind that for most people, the ski holiday was the only the second most important annual holiday after the family summer one. As people’s lives became more hectic, more people became cash rich and time poor and the ability to squeeze in 7 days for a winter break became harder and harder. This is where the Low Cost Airlines enter the equation.

If we use our home market of Bulgaria as the sample model, Low Cost Airlines are now flying to Sofia – which is still the main gateway airport to all three of Bulgaria’s main ski resorts – from a myriad of airports across much of Western Europe and indeed beyond, but not only do they fly from for example Bristol, Doncaster, Eindhoven and Nuremburg as opposed to flying solely from main capitals or cities like London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, they are flying at regular intervals which in turn facilitates a whole new ski product: the short duration ski holiday, itself not dis-similar to the short weekend city break that people across Europe now see as a staple part of the leisure options.

Skiing has never been a poor man’s sport and whilst you nowadays do not have to be rich to enjoy the sport, even a short ski trip can be as costly as a summer beach holiday, but for those without the ability to skive away from the responsibilities of work or home duties for a whole week, the chance to come to Bansko, Borovets or Pamporovo for two or three days skiing is now well and truly on the table. Jump on the Ryanair flight from Liverpool on a Friday and ski in Bansko or Borovets on Saturday and Sunday before flying home on the Monday; get a cheap flight from Manchester with Easyjet from Manchester on a Thursday and head back on a Sunday. If you live where Germany, France and Switzerland merge but find local skiing expensive; then fly from Basle with Wizz Air on a Friday and back on a Monday. If you are from Holland or Northern Germany and you like skiing then you will be more than familiar with the brutality of the weekends on the A5 and A8 German autobahns that transport skiers to the Austrian Alps! Jump on the five times weekly Wizz Air flights from Eindhoven or one of the daily flights from Dortmund and arrive in Sofia a couple of hours later and a couple of hours later more you are in your inexpensive Bulgarian ski resort; an altogether faster and safer journey and even cheaper option than a drive down the A5 and A8!

Of course, all this wouldn’t work if the aforementioned flights weren’t affordable, something that they most certainly are. The intervention of the likes of Ryanair, Wizz and Easyjet into the local equation has seen air fares plummet: people in this part of the world used to look on with skepticism at the ”10 Euro” air fares in Western Europe as they looked at the (high) fares being charged in this part of the world by Lufthansa, BA and Air France et al. The reality now is that fares of 10 Euro per way originating from Europe to Bulgaria (and vice versa for that matter) are a fact and not a theoretical concept. OK, not all flights on the Low Cost Carriers are so low but they invariably do not reach treble figures and this is one of the core factors that are driving this evolution in ski tourism.

It should however be note that despite this changing pattern in how people approach their ski break, it does not guarantee that there will be any more nights stayed in total across the whole ski season despite the huge increase in ‘”numbers’’ of people who come to the country. The reality however is that invariably the overall net figures for these total nights will increase as is being borne out by EU statistics which shows Bulgaria as having the highest rate of growth on visitor numbers across the whole of the EU countries, a growth of 17.9%.

The bottom line then for the local ski scene is that the impressive improvement in the ski infrastructure across the three main ski resorts is now yielding great results both for the ski areas and also for the country’s coffers. This might go down as astute forward thinking by the state or regional planners; on the other hand the successful evolution might be down rather to good luck than good management!


March – Cuba was tipped to be the ‘” next big thing’” but it’s never really happened. What the USA’s fascination is with the continued isolation of this speck of land in the Caribbean is curious:-

New horizons; no people

It was only a few months ago that amidst much fanfare, commercial flights re-started between Cuba and the USA, with airline companies battling each other to grab some of the new passenger routes on offer between these once rival countries. The forecasted boom in people wanting to travel between the two places though never materialized and this political whim has turned out to be a commercial disaster for some of the smaller airlines who won the flight rights. Two of them: Silver Airways and Frontier Airlines are to suspend their operations from next month. Too many flights and too large aircraft are being blamed for the ‘market conditions’ although one wonders if simply speaking, the Cubans who did manage to settle in the USA feel now is still not the right time to head back to the homeland?

April  – a very short article but it’s not every week an iconic European landmark attraction disappears. In this case Malta also lost one of its national symbols. This simply shows the power of nature:-

The elements win.

The Azure window, one of Malta’s most famous attractions collapsed into the sea last month after strong storms battered the island. The rock arch was easily identifiable and was an icon for the marketing of Malta and Gozo where the attraction was located. It was also featured in several films including the Game of Thrones.


May – as if we didn’t know it already! Local drivers simply don’t know how to drive a fact that’s now official! Sadly 2017 isn’t any better either: –

Bottom of the road.

Bulgaria is officially the most dangerous place to drive in Europe. During 2016, 99.7 people per million inhabitants lost their lives on our roads which is roughly double the average for the whole of the EU which stands at 49.99 per I million people.

The safest places countries to drive were Swede, UK and the Netherlands.

June – as 2017 progressed, more stories appeared about hacks and attempted hacks of technology and software by unknown elements. Both rogue (!) states and criminal organisations can be pointed at for this new profession and its one that’s not going to go away anytime soon. Meanwhile, as our cynical editorial in June described, technology without humans is a dangerous recipe:- 

Controlled by Technology.

Are each and everyone of us becoming too dependent on technology? That same question has been heard now for several years but when asked five or ten years ago, any such dependence we thought we had on technology at that time is nothing compared to the position we are in five years or ten years later. This thought can be directed as much towards our individual lives as it can towards the environment in which we work. In our personal lives have you tried asking a person what time it is recently? There’s a fair chance that the answer given to you will arrive via a glance at the screen of a telephone. How many people still use alarm clocks?  The telephone alarm has, for many, become the sole source of that early morning call. The sign of old age might be asking for your local telephone operator to give you an early morning call – on a landline!

As far as our work environment is concerned, all of us – I struggle to think of many occupations that don’t need direct or indirect use of a computer –  are not driven by technology: we are controlled by it. In the travel industry nowadays, just about all facets of the industry are edging towards technological control and away from human control. Is that always a positive move however?

Two facts from last month: a serious hacking attempt was made globally and particularly in the UK where large organisations including the mammoth government controlled National Health Service were attacked and secondly, British Airways had a complete IT meltdown, shutting down almost all of its technology systems which apparently cost it 80 million GBP or almost 100 million Euro in damages. No-one has pieced these two ‘” happenings’” together and its only here in the Balkans that the conspiracy theory prevails, yet very often black is never black and white is indeed never white. BA to their credit were quick to scream that there had been a massive power surge in the electrical supply that had caused the outage; except the utility provider said ‘” sorry there was no power surge!” So that excuse disappeared and was replaced   by the explanation that a cleaner…… sorry let’s make that a contract engineer (note that’s not a directly employed person…!), had unplugged the ‘system’’ which then blew up when the plug was put back in the socket.

Now you will realize that we are being slightly facetious but the excuses provided by BA really do take some believing in this era of technology-  but do they?  We should point out that this is not an attack on British Airways as this scenario could have affected any airline, but it’s the whole   issue of who controls who or what that is raised. Did the hackers – sorry there wasn’t any – but would the hackers have taken control of BA if this was an attack like the other scenarios last month? Or, as even Willie Walsh the boss of the IAG, the BA parent company saying he can understand the (unnamed) Cleaner, sorry (unnamed) engineer, unplugging something by error and damaging the power supply but how can the serious damage be done when the power is turned on again?

So let’s think about this at home, when we unplug the toaster to clean it and then plug it back in to the power supply, do we duck for cover in case it explodes? When we unplug the fridge to give it its annual defrost do we risk activating a Tardis that goes out of control into another time warp? The answer is no to both of these so therefore how can the sockless bearded ones who carry the badge of software experts, design something that is simply not fit for the purpose it was designed for? Actually they can because very often such designers and engineers are not front end users of a system and have no first-hand experience of what it is the user wants and needs. In this case the need was for an airline operating system that doesn’t implode when its plugged in again. Quite simple really one would think.

There is a serious side to this however and here BA need to look at (like other service providers) how they handle themselves in such a situation. Mr. Walsh again admitted that the communication from his organization simply wasn’t up to scratch. Top marks the for the frank admission. The media were quick to relay news clips from stranded passengers who each had a similar issue; namely there was no-one giving them information. Now of course such information can be gleaned from the website of BA or from its call Centre’s, except that is that they had evaporated also. So what does one do when technology shuts down, you get out the pen and paper and do the things manually, except that is this notion has two flaws; 1) there is no procedure for manual operations unlike say 20-30 years ago (think paper tickets for example) and 2) there are actually no humans left in employment! Actually there are one or two humans still around but they apparently were a bit like the dodo bird. So no human contact procedure to handle such a scenario and no humans around to help when things go wrong – as invariably they do.

All of us should learn that we can live with technology but whether it’s in our business or in our private lives we should equally learn to cope without it. Just be careful the next time you plus in the toaster by the way and if it explodes, blame the North Koreans.


July/August – this story ran and ran but it’s nice to have a good news story around: –

What really happens at 33,000ft.

Due to the holiday season we are in the midst of, many will have missed the story about the lady who gave birth last month mid-air whilst on a flight from Colombia to Frankfurt. This in itself is quite rare as pregnant women have to get medical approval to fly and can only fly up to a certain period before their ‘” due date’”. However, surprises do happen and this particular lady went into labour during the flight. Thankfully the Lufthansa crew have all been trained in such eventualities and after clearing passengers away from the back of the plane and setting up a dividing partition, they, together with three doctors who were onboard, helped deliver a baby boy.

The captain landed the plane as soon as he reached Europe at Manchester to allow the baby and its mother to be taken to hospital before the plane carried onto Frankfurt.

What we have not mentioned was that the baby is Bulgarian and was born to a Bulgarian mother. The baby was the 11th to be born on a Lufthansa plane since 1965 and traditionally, all such babies are allowed to travel free for the rest of their lives; or so it was! Such a privilege is unlikely to be granted these days and its more likely an airline would charge the mother retroactively for their ‘ancillary services”’.

September – how much is your local team worth to you? Obviously ‘” a lot of money’” judging by this amusing story in the USA. One bet the airline management were cringing at what their over booking policy cost them: –

What price to see your favourite team?

Earlier this year, United Airlines saw fit to overbook a flight and then forcibly drag an overbooked passenger off the flights, face bloodied et al. Of course they failed to think about mobile phones and no faster had the unlucky passenger been dragged down the aircraft stairs and the whole episode was on Social media. The net result was massive bad PR for United and a whopping out of court settlement. What that also did was galvanize the US aviation system into establishing rules for the compensation of passengers who are overbooked on planes in the USA. This new system paid dividend recently in spectacular fashion.

Delta over booked a flight operating between Atlanta to South Bend, Indiana and immediately started to ask for volunteers to leave the plane in return for a financial compensation. An auction prevailed and the amount rose to an incredible 4000 USD before a person volunteered to leave the plane. Aside of the 4000 USD the passenger was also re-booked onto the next flight which was 9 hours later.

The reason why no-one wished to give up their seats was because they were all (or largely) American Football Fans and if they had given up their seats they would have missed the game they were going to see!

October – the boom in tourism in Bulgaria these past twelve months was highlighted by EU figures showing the country as having the largest percentage growth in air travel across Europe. Any awards to Wizz and Ryanair?:-

Air boom in Bulgaria

Bulgaria had the largest percentage increase in air passenger numbers across all EU countries during 2016. The increase being a whopping 22.5%. The total number of passengers being 9.32 million, a modest figure when compared with the largest number which were recorded in   the UK with 249 million followed by Germany with 201 million.

Romania followed Bulgaria in the growth figures with a 20.5% growth followed by Cyprus 18.1%. At the other end of the scale, Belgium and Slovenia saw contractions of 2.7% and2.2% respectively.

The busiest airports in Europe were London Heathrow with 75.7 million (+1.0%), Paris Charles De Gaulle with 65.8 million (+0.3%) and Amsterdam Schiphol with 63.6 million (+9.3%) passengers

November – it’s not often the Germans make a mess of something but when they do, it’s almost like they want to do something so stupid it will never be matched by anyone: –

German Embarrassment Continues

One story that just won’t go away – yet still the “real truth” as to why it didn’t open in the first place has never really been told – is the farce surrounding the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport. The super new facility was due to open in the German capital in 2012 and still it remains closed. The latest gossip is that it won’t open now until at least 2021; previous optimism suggested it may open next year.

The latest pieces of news about Germanys largest white elephant is that the serious deficiencies in the technical systems are more serious than, well, serious! Meanwhile rail operator Deutsche Bahn continues to run ghost trains in and out of the airport to keep the system operational and the 322 Steigenberger Hotel continues to stand empty.


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