Jesus Caballero, SOF Connect: We Want to Turn Sofia into a Preferred Destination

How will SOF Connect attract more visitors to Sofia and what new destinations and routes are planned for 2024?

We believe that the role of the largest international airport in the country to make the capital of Bulgaria more attractive to visit is extremely important.
Our goal is beyond than having more passengers at the airport – it is to make Sofia an internationally preferred destination, so that people associate the city as safe and interesting to visit, offering a wide variety of high-quality products and services.
Of course, we cannot fulfill this mission alone, so we are constantly working with the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Transport and the Sofia Municipality on various joint projects.
We also work closely with foreign embassies of target countries, tour operators, local and foreign tourism administrations and other stakeholders to make a strong case to airlines and passengers. We are actively lobbying in the direction of advertising Sofia as an attractive tourist destination.
In addition to active cooperation with these institutions, we invest a lot in attracting more visitors for various purposes. For example, we participate in all major travel fairs to raise awareness of the destination, as well as route development conferences to meet with airline decision makers.
We continuously collaborate with influencers and media from the target countries and organize familiarization visits during which they can come and explore the product in order to recommend the destination to their local market.
Our goal is to contribute to making Sofia an unforgettable experience for every visitor, not just the next destination on the list.
We really have a very responsible role as the airport is the first impression a traveler gets when visiting the country and we work hard to make it a pleasant experience.
In 2023, the list of destinations increased by seven. As for the new destinations planned for 2024, we are very happy to fill another uncovered territory on our map – the Baltic region and Scandinavia.
After active negotiations with airBaltic, the airline announced the start of direct flights to Riga every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from May 2024. Another new route from Sofia will be Helsinki, operated by one of the largest Scandinavian airlines – Norwegian Air Shuttle.
Last summer, the airline launched a Sofia-Oslo route, which will continue next summer. We continue to discuss with potential airlines and other destinations in Europe and beyond. As soon as we receive confirmation from them, we will be able to announce it publicly.

What new state-of-the-art technologies can we expect to integrate at Sofia Airport in the coming years?

Expect news in this direction in the short term. We want to achieve our system uptime of 99.9%, minimizing cybersecurity risks, technology disruptions and breaches, and maintaining our systems to ensure they continue to function optimally in 2024 and beyond.
Looking ahead, we have several exciting initiatives in the pipeline. We are in the process of implementing an airport management system and internal ERP system to improve capacity and optimize revenue.
We plan to implement technologies to improve the passenger experience that use biometrics and operational analytics for passenger flows.
We will also enhance our B2C offerings, including check-in, Wi-Fi, electronic check-in counters and information kiosks. We plan to implement automated passport control and increase the number of check-in counters to facilitate passenger and baggage processing.
We plan to install digital screens that are customer-friendly and easy to navigate, allowing passengers to quickly find the information they need while at the airport.

SOF Connect has launched many sustainable initiatives in recent years, such as the renovation of the airport’s parking lot with electric vehicles, the construction of one of the largest photovoltaic parks in the country that will guarantee more than 90% energy independence, and activities aimed at improving the energy efficiency of terminal buildings. What are your plans in this area for 2024?

In 2024 we will replace the platform floodlighting with energy efficient LED luminaires with a remote control system.
This measure alone will reduce electricity consumption by more than 800 MWh/year, which represents more than a 300 t CO2 drop each year. We will reduce the airport’s current electricity consumption by nearly 3%.
Also next year we will implement our new advertising programme with new LED light boxes and screens. It is being led by our commercial department. This will lead to further energy savings in the terminal buildings and a CO2 reduction of 51 t CO2/year.
We plan to begin the electrification of ground handling with a project to strengthen the electrical grid and install additional charging stations for electric vehicles and equipment.
You mentioned the solar park project. In December we selected the designer of the first 5 MWp installation and in 2024 we will approve the technical design and start the implementation. We expect the first 5 MWp to be fully operational by the end of 2025. This year we updated our carbon management plan and developed a decarbonisation trajectory. This trajectory includes investments from 2023 to 2036, when we need to achieve zero emissions with only a 15% offset.
All investments have been approved and included in the airport’s capital expenditure programme. In early 2024, we will apply for the next level of carbon accreditation, where this commitment is mandatory.
Our commitment will be reviewed and verified by an independent auditor and in April we hope to be able to announce that we have achieved Level 4 of the Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) programme.
Today there are only 8 airports in Europe that hold ACA Level 4 accreditation – Marseille, Basel, Zurich, Paris – Charles de Gaulle, Orly and Le Bourget, Istanbul and London-Luton.
This higher level is not a contractual obligation for Sofia Airport, but is the result of our and our investor’s commitment to sustainability, renewable energy and decarbonization.

What were the most important policies aimed at developing SOF Connect employees in 2023 and what are your plans for 2024?

In 2023, we continued to implement our HR and social policy aimed at building sustainable relationships with employees and creating value for all of them and for our organization.
We paid special attention to people development and started the year with the introduction of our new Training and Qualification Policy. Intensive training was organized not only in aviation-specific areas. We focused on developing and building the management and soft skills of the teams in a systematic way.
SOF Connect, as a company, has solid traditions in social dialogue. We continue to work closely with our social partners, while creating new standards of behavior and work efficiency and putting the customer at the center of our activities.
The direction for 2024 will be the one we have already set and the transformation to a company that our people will be very proud to work for will continue.

What are your financial projections for 2024?

In 2024, the airport’s operations will continue to grow by developing connectivity and adding services, such as a new duty-free shopping area, new shops (Relay and Jazzy Nuts, which opened this month), increased food and beverage offerings with new pavilions and additional parking spaces.
We will continue the airport’s transformation to industry standards by digitizing with a new ERP system, beginning the replacement of operating systems, etc.
In terms of investment, in 2024, there will be an acceleration after two years of design and permitting for some major projects that are about to start.
A new outdoor car park will be built, we will start renovating the covered car park, the company will continue to renovate the airport area to ensure passenger safety.
The baggage handling system, which is the heart of the airport, will also be upgraded next year.

What are the next big investment projects of SOF Connect?

In 2024, permanent open parking lots will be constructed, according to the concession agreement. Immediately thereafter, we will begin renovation of the multi-storey covered car park, increasing safety for users.
The fuel farm will be designed and equipped with a firefighting system, the renovation will allow us to use SAF (sustainable aviation fuel).
Another major project is the design of a 5 MWp self-consumption photovoltaic plant, which we will start construction of in 2024-25.
Meanwhile, the Terminal 2 renovation project is accelerating with the new shopping area, new food and beverage kiosks, business lounges and others. Most importantly, the design, passenger flows and interaction with Terminal 2 are ready for the start of the design of Terminal 3.

In October, the first career fair in the aviation industry in Bulgaria was held, organized by SOF Connect. Are you satisfied with the results and what are your future plans regarding the event?

This was indeed the first aviation career fair organized in Bulgaria, being one of our social commitments to improve our functioning as an ecosystem and to we develop the airport community.
2023 was a pilot year for the project and we invited 5 companies to participate: BULATSA, Lufthansa Technik, Swissport, Goldair and Dufry. We had a great success and had more than 400 visitors who gave us very positive feedback about the event.
The exhibition attracted the interest of many other airport-related companies and we believe that next year we will have significantly more exhibitors and visitors. Our ambition is for Sofia Air Careerport to become an emblematic annual forum for the industry in Bulgaria.

The interview is published on Darik Business Review on 12.12.2023. Read here in Bulgarian.