EU Bans Belarusian Aircraft over Ryanair Forced Diversion

 - May 25, 2021, 5:34 AM
The European Union has banned Belarusian flagcarrier Belarus from operating in European Union airspace and airports. (Photo: Belavia)

The European Union has banned Belarusian airlines from the airspace and airports of its 27 member states in response to the incident on May 23 when the Belarus government forced a Ryanair flight to land in the capital Minsk so that it could arrest political dissident Roman Protasevich. A package of punitive measures agreed upon during an emergency meeting of the European Council on Monday night also called for further economic sanctions against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and his associates.

Demanding the immediate release of Protasevich and his traveling companion Sofia Sopega, who were detained after Belarus authorities ordered passengers from Flight 4978 off the aircraft when it landed in Minsk, the European Council called on ICAO to “urgently investigate this unprecedented and unacceptable incident.” The ICAO Council plans to hold a special meeting on May 27 from which further measures against Belarus might emerge.

In cases where a member state breaches ICAO requirements, it can have its ICAO Assembly and Council voting rights suspended. Belarus is a member of the ICAO Assembly, but not the ICAO Council. 

U.S. President Joe Biden endorsed the EU sanctions, indicating that his administration will now consider “appropriate options.” Earlier on Monday, the UK suspended the permit that allows flag carrier Belavia to operate into the country.

Meanwhile, multiple airlines have opted to avoid Belarusian airspace on safety grounds. EASA manages the conflict zone alert list for the region and, as of Tuesday morning, it had not issued a conflict zone information bulletin covering Belarus.

The International Federation of Airline Pilots Association (IFALPA) and the European Cockpit Association (ECA) have protested against the intervention of a Belarusian air force MiG-29 fighter in forcing the Ryanair crew to land on the pretext of a bomb scare, which the country's security service appears to have fabricated. The groups said the Belarus government’s actions contravened ICAO’s founding Chicago Convention and appeared to constitute “state-sponsored hijacking.” They called for an independent investigation into the incident.

“This unprecedented act of unlawful interference will potentially upend all the assumptions about the safest response to bomb threats on flight and interceptions,” said IFALPA and ECA in a joint statement. “Without trust and reliable information from states and air navigation service providers, handling both types of events becomes much riskier to manage.”

The groups also addressed the circumstances in which the Belarus air force apparently coerced the Ryanair flight crew to land at Minsk, even though at the point when the aircraft diverted it appeared to be closer to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. Flight 4978 was en route from the Greek capital Athens to Vilnius when it passed through Belarusian airspace. Both Greece and Lithuania are EU member states.

“IFALPA and ECA stress that the pilot-in-command always has the best overview of the actual situation on board and must be able to react according to the level of risk, regardless of external circumstances,” said the joint statement. “Any measures taken by states to address a specific threat should enhance the crew’s ability to assess the situation thoroughly.”

Noticeably absent from the widespread condemnation of the Belarus government was its close ally Russia. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called on the case to be “assessed without any haste and hurry.” He pointed to a July 2013 incident in which a head-of-state aircraft carrying former Bolivian President Evo Morales diverted to Vienna, Austria, on a flight from Moscow to the Bolivian capital La Paz, apparently as justification for Belarus’s actions.

In that case, authorities in Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal refused to allow access to their airspace, effectively forcing the aircraft to divert for fuel. Bolivia and Russia accused the U.S. government of orchestrating the incident after they became convinced that fugitive journalist Edward Snowden was being smuggled out of Russia on the aircraft.

Authorities held Flight 4978 on the ground in Minsk for more than five hours before allowing it to continue to Vilnius. In addition to Protasevich and Sogepa, three other passengers did not reboard the aircraft and Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary on Monday said that they likely were Belarus KGB agents involved in the alleged mission to forcibly divert the flight. According to Eurocontrol, the pilots issued 20 departure delay messages indicating that they were either not ready or not permitted to depart Minsk.

Due to the recent closure of the eastern portion of Ukraine’s airspace due to political tensions with Russia, several EU airlines have been overflying Belarus on flights to Asia. Eurocontrol data shows that over the seven days to May 19, approximately 2,500 flights overflew or took off and landed Belarusian airspace, of which Belavia operated 419. The state-owned carrier has a 30-aircraft fleet including 15 Boeing 737s, three Embraer E195-E2s, seven E195s, and five E175s.

On May 24, Belavia operated 20 flights to and from EU airports, with between 40 and 60 using EU airspace and around 64 flights using the wider Eurocontrol airspace. On the same day, Lufthansa, Lot, and Air Baltic all operated flights to and from Minsk. A Lufthansa aircraft was reportedly held on the ground for a security check that day, but the airline has not confirmed details of that incident.

Eurocontrol said that its Network Manager unit is working with airlines and air navigation service providers in countries neighboring Belarus to ensure enough capacity to allow airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.