Balkan Air Tour earns new status

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IGOR SALINGER / BELGRADE

The Bulgarian government has established Balkan Air Tour as the new national carrier following the liquidation of Balkan Bulgarian Airlines late last month. The Sofia airport-based tour operator, which is government-owned, was granted an air operators certificate on 1 November and is scheduled to begin operations by December.

The new operator will take over most of the assets of Balkan Bulgarian, but not its 180 million leva ($92 million) debts. The airline will operate Balkan's two Boeing 737s leased from Lufthansa, and one Tupolev Tu-154M leased from Slovak Airlines. It will be financed by the state, says minister of finance Milen Velchev, with 10-30 million leva to initially be provided. The government plans to privatise up to 50%. The airline intends to operate to Berlin, Frankfurt, London, Milan, Moscow, Paris and Tel Aviv.

Court-appointed administrator of Balkan Bulgarian Olga Milenkova questions the timeframe for the new carrier. "Balkan needed six months when it suspended operations to resume flights again," Milenkova says, adding that the state funding is "extremely insufficient".

The final collapse of Balkan Bulgarian followed a troubled history for the carrier, which ceased operations in February 2001 due to mounting debts, and then resumed limited operations under administration later that year. Two years before, the government sold 75% of the airline to Israel's Zeevi Holding. Last month the airline's largest creditors rejected a recovery plan that would have swapped cancellation of debt for equity.