Qatar Airways has continued its 2011 European expansion drive with the launch of scheduled flights from the airline’s Doha hub to Bulgaria’s capital city of Sofia.

Flight QR943 arrived at Sofia International Airport to a dramatic water salute and welcome ceremony yesterday. The Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Boyko Borissov greeted the first flight at a reception, attended by airport officials and dignitaries from the Bulgarian government and local business community.

Qatar Airways Chief Executive Officer Akbar Al Baker led a delegation on the inaugural service from the airline’s operational hub of Doha, capital of the State of Qatar. The delegation included the Bulgarian Charge D’Affaires to Qatar, Miroslav Zafirov, and media from the Gulf region.

Sofia becomes the latest addition to Qatar Airways’ European portfolio this year, which has seen the launch of five other routes – Bucharest, Budapest, Brussels, Stuttgart and Venice – in phases since January. Qatar Airways’ European network now totals 26 cities, representing 25 per cent of the airline’s global network of over 100 destinations.

Addressing guests at the airport ceremony in Sofia, Al Baker said: “We are delighted to add Sofia to our international route network, further strengthening the traditionally excellent relations between our two countries. We are confident that Bulgaria will prove to be a great success for Qatar Airways and will open new doors for businesses and individuals.

“Four flights a week will give Bulgarians the opportunity to explore a whole new world, in the most convenient way with Qatar Airways via our Doha hub. Be it Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo, Hanoi, Phuket, Dubai, Muscat, Johannesburg or Melbourne, our network of diverse cities offers a seamless travel experience for our customers from Bulgaria, as well as for our passengers flying to Sofia from abroad.

“Furthermore, as the only Gulf carrier offering services to and from Sofia, we are providing an exciting new travel option for passengers flying long-haul to and from Bulgaria’s capital city.”

Sofia International Airport Chief Executive Officer Veselin Peykov added: “We are proud to welcome Qatar Airways to Bulgaria and to be able to offer our passengers a new gateway to over 100 destinations worldwide. Sofia Airport is growing at a sustainable pace, gradually turning into a regional hub and I am happy to welcome Qatar Airways on Bulgarian ground.”

Qatar Airways, recently named Airline of the Year by industry audit Skytrax, is also the only Five Star-ranked carrier to operate scheduled flights to Sofia, connecting Bulgaria and the surrounding regions of the Balkan Peninsula with more than 100 destinations worldwide.

Qatar Airways’ flights to and from Sofia operate with a brief stop in the Romanian capital, Bucharest. With the Sofia – Bucharest connection, Qatar Airways also offers Bulgarian and Romanian business and leisure travellers the opportunity to take advantage of this new air link and the opportunity to sample the airline’s award-winning service on short sectors.

Visitors to Sofia have the opportunity to explore the city and its rich history, spanning over 200 years. While for foreign holidaymakers, Bulgaria’s main lure are the sandy beaches of the Black Sea coast, the country also offers lush mountains and forested landscapes, ideal for hiking, skiing and wildlife watching.

The Sofia – Doha route is served with an Airbus A320 aircraft featuring up to 12 seats in Business Class and up to 132 seats in Economy. The aircraft offers seatback TV screens providing passengers with the next generation interactive onboard entertainment system featuring a choice of more than 700 audio and video on demand options.

Over the next three months, Qatar Airways will expand its services to the Norwegian capital Oslo, beginning October 5; Entebbe in Uganda from November 2; and the Chinese city of Chongqing on November 28.

Flights to Baku and Tbilisi, the capitals of Azerbaijan and Georgia, respectively, will be launched on February 1. By 2013, Qatar Airways plans to serve more than 120 destinations worldwide with a fleet of over 120 aircraft. The airline currently has a fleet of 99 aircraft.