ICAO Probe into Forced Diversion of a Ryanair 737 Progresses

 - June 16, 2021, 3:47 PM

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has issued requests for information (RFIs) to countries with “direct ties” to the May 23 forced diversion by Belarus of a Ryanair Boeing 737, ICAO said in a statement Wednesday. The requests come as part of a so-called fact-finding investigation launched by the ICAO Secretariat at the behest of the ICAO Council on May 27.

ICAO said that Belarus and Poland have provided some preliminary details, while the body continues to await information from Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, and Switzerland.

The ICAO aviation security team will present an interim report to the ICAO Council by the end of its current session, on or near June 23.

Meanwhile, the investigation will continue as ICAO awaits RFI responses. It said it expects to issue a report at the council’s next session, which begins on September 13.

While expressing concern about the forced diversion of flight FR4978 from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, ICAO notes that it does not hold 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.

Days after the diversion, which the Belarusian government coerced under the pretext of a bomb threat to arrest political dissident Roman Protasevich, the European Union banned Belarusian airlines from the airspace and airports of its 27 member states in response. A package of punitive measures agreed upon during an emergency meeting of the European Council also called for further economic sanctions against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and his associates.

On June 2 the European Union Aviation Safety Agency issued a Safety Directive (SD) calling on EASA member states to ban their aircraft operators from flying into Belarus airspace. The move called for mandates to not overfly Belarus “unless required for safe operations in unforeseen circumstances,” said EASA.

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 from its publication date or “as circumstances require.”

Since then, 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."