From the moment it became clear that the diversion of a Ryanair Boeing to Minsk on Sunday was not an ordinary but an orchestrated one with political objectives, it was clear: Belarus won’t get away with this one. It has been a blatant violation of the United Nation’s Chicago Convention that has been condemned worldwide. EU leaders and other countries are preparing sanctions on Belarus.

On May 23, Ryanair Boeing 737-800 SP-RSM departed Athens slightly delayed at 10.28 am local time for a direct service to Vilnius in the Baltic States. Flight FR4978 is not a regular one: FlightAware lists the last direct service on October 18 last year, although it seems to operate on May 30 too.

The flight was supposed to arrive at Vilnius at 1.00 pm sharp, but over Belarus, the cockpit crew was advised by Minsk ATC that it had received a security threat and requested it to divert to Minsk. From the ATC playback, it is clear the crew hesitated as it requested more information, but Minsk was unwilling to offer more details. In the meantime, the Belarus air force has scrambled a MiG 29 to intercept the Ryanair flight, leaving the crew no option but to divert to Minsk. It duly landed at 12.22 pm local time.

Ryanair flight FR4978 over Belarus

Screenshot from Flightradar, showing how Ryanair FR4978 diverted to Minsk.

Eight hours later, FR4978 departed Minsk again and after a forty minutes’ flight arrived at its intended destination Vilnius at 9.27 pm local time. Six seats had been empty, as in Minsk it became apparent what the ‘ threat’ actually was. Not a bomb threat from Hamas, as some government spokesperson tried to claim a day later, but a journalist: 26-year old Raman Pratasevich, the driving force behind many rallies from Belarus nationals who strongly oppose the Lukashenko dictatorship. Convicted by absence to death and therefore seriously in danger of his life. His girlfriend was also arrested. The four other seats left empty must have been booked by security agents, traveling all the way from Athens to make sure the orchestrated action would end successfully.

Contravention of Chicago Convention

When more details of the action emerged, authorities and governments were quick to respond. The United Nations’ Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said on Sunday night: “ICAO is strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention.”

IATA, the airline’s global association, followed suit: “We strongly condemn any interference or requirement for landing of civil aviation operations that are inconsistent with the rules of law.”
Many governments followed, including US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, while chairman of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said ahead of a planned meeting by the European government leaders: “The outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.”

Von der Leyen used the word that was on many lips: FR4978 had been the victim of a hijack. Ryanair referred to the issue as “an act of aviation piracy”, but only on Monday morning. In its first reaction on Sunday night, the Irish low-cost didn’t refer to the arrest of Pratasevich at all and merely apologized “sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay.” It caused cynic reactions on Twitter, such as: “What about the missing passengers?”

UK first to impose sanctions

The UK government was one of the first the actually impose sanctions on Belarus. Secretary of State Grant Shapps tweeted on Monday that he had advised the to request airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace “in order to keep passengers safe.” He also took another step: “I have also suspended Belavia’s operating permit”, meaning that the national carrier was banned from operating into the UK.

Others hesitated to follow, with Royal Dutch Airlines KLM stating on Monday morning that it was still using Belarus airspace as it was deemed safe. Neither did Lufthansa change its policy, but during the day things started to move. airBaltic, Wizz Air, SAS, and Finnair announced they all would avoid Belarus. “Currently airBaltic has not yet got clarity on the situation in Belarus, therefore as a caution the airline continues to avoid entering Belarus airspace for the next flights on May 25 from Riga to Athens and Heraklion.”

Only early evening on Monday, KLM sided with the avoiders after public comments from Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, while after public pressure in Germany, Lufthansa also joined the growing number of countries that circumvented Belarus. Even Ryanair continued to fly over Belarus on Monday morning with a flight from Greece to Estonia.

European Council condemns action

On Monday night, the European Council strongly condemned the action by Belarus and demanded amongst others the immediate release of Pratasevich and his girlfriend and adopt additional listings of persons and entities for economic sanctions.

It also called on the Council to adopt the “necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines. The EU leaders have also called on ICAO “to urgently investigate this unprecedented and unacceptable incident.” ICAO itself has called an urgent meeting of the ICAO Council for this coming Thursday of 36 diplomatic representatives.

Belavia Embraer E195-E2

Belavia faces flight bans to Europe and has already stopped service to the UK and France until October. It recently received its third and final Embraer E195-E2. Here is one doing an impressive low flypast here. (Belavia)

In this rolling crisis, the outcome is uncertain. Belavia is certainly to suffer massively from the announced ban. Although details of it have to be decided yet, the airline said on Tuesday that it has been forced to cancel flights to the UK and France until at least October 30: “We are saddened by the current situation, which we cannot change. We apologize to our passengers.”

Belavia has an extensive summer schedule in place that includes all major European cities, connecting via Minsk to its network into Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East. The carrier, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, operates a fleet of 31 aircraft, including the first of three Boeing MAX 8s and fifteen older 737s. It recently took delivery of its third and final Embraer E195-E2 leased from AerCap.

Airlines still deal differently with unsafe situations

A shiny new fleet is totally irrelevant as long as the Belarus leadership is willing to purposely act against all conventions. Hijacks have happened before and were a popular tool by terrorists in the 1970s and 80s, but the Ryanair incident has been the first time that a commercial airliner has been forced to respond to actions initiated by an individual state.

The downing of 007 over Sakhalin by a Russian fighter jet in 1983 and the tragedy of Malaysian Airlines MH17 over Ukraine by a Russian Buk in 2014 are different incidents with different backgrounds, but they spring to mind when recounting what has happened to Ryanair FR4978. Or what could have happened, had the crew failed to respond to the Minsk ATC instructions.

The incident and the initially different responses by airlines and countries as to keep overflying Belarus is also significant. After MH17, airline industry leaders led by Emirates’ Sir Tim Clark discussed at length how airlines should deal with unsafe countries. While the UK reacted promptly, KLM and Lufthansa seemed to assess the risks in a different way until they were forced to change their minds after pressure.

On the morning of May 25, Belarus airspace was avoided by most Western airlines except cargo flights. We witness Turkish Airlines crossing the far West of the country on its way to Riga, while and China Eastern flights also continued undisturbed from East to West to destination in Europe. Russian airlines like Aeroflot, Pobeda, or SmartAvia were using Belarus without hesitation. 

 

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