EASA Requires Member States To Bar Flights over Belarus

 - June 2, 2021, 9:18 AM

Updated on June 4 to include IATA position

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency on Wednesday issued a safety directive (SD) calling on EASA member states to ban their aircraft operators from flying into Belarus airspace. The move for the first time calls for mandates to not overfly Belarus “unless required for safe operations in unforeseen circumstances,” said EASA.

The directive calls on national aviation authorities to put the measures in place within two days of its effective date, June 2. Although EASA already had issued a Safety Information Bulletin (SIB) directly to operators that recommended avoiding Belarus airspace, the SD sets the basis for mandatory action. EASA said it would review the SD at intervals of no more than one month or “as circumstances require.”

Published in consultation with the EASA member states and the European Commission, the directive follows the May 23 incident in which a Belarusian MiG-29 forced the diversion to Minsk of a Ryanair Boeing 737 bound for Vilnius from Athens so that authorities could arrest political dissident Roman Protasevich.

“The circumstances surrounding this action cast serious doubts on the respect shown by Belarus for international civil aviation rules and is indicative of an abuse of air navigation procedures by the Belarusian authorities,” EASA said in the new service directive. “As such, it is a breach of the principles underlying the mutual trust that are at the cornerstone of international civil aviation.”

Nevertheless, the International Air Transport Association has criticized EASA for the decision to make its initial recommendations mandatory, calling the move a politicization of air safety. “Aviation safety must never be politicized, said IATA director general Willie Walsh. "IATA condemned the actions of the Belarus government and called for an independent investigation. Banning European aircraft from using Belarusian airspace with a Safety Directive is also a politicization of aviation safety. This is a retrograde and disappointing development. EASA should rescind its prohibition and allow airlines to manage safety as they do each and every day—with their normal operational risk assessments."

At a special meeting on May 27, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council asked member states and other stakeholders to cooperate in a fact-finding investigation into the incident to establish “whether there had been any breach by an ICAO member state of international aviation law, including the convention on international civil aviation [Chicago Convention] and its annexes.”

In a written statement, the governing body of ICAO instructed the ICAO Secretariat to conduct the investigation that will result in the presentation of a report to the Council at a future meeting. It called on all ICAO member states, including Belarus and its close ally Russia, to cooperate with the investigation.

While expressing concern about the forced diversion of flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius, ICAO stressed that it does not have the authority to directly enforce measures in retaliation for what political and airline industry leaders have characterized as a state-sponsored hijacking. Under Article 88 of the Chicago Convention, the ICAO Assembly could suspend Belarus’s voting rights as a member state if it finds “non-conformity” with the organization’s requirements.