The Briefing: What’s Going On With Airlines And Belarus?
On 23rd May 2021, Belarus sent a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight to land. The Ryanair flight had departed from the Greek capital Athens and was due to land in Vilnius in Lithuania. Instead, the flight landed in Minsk at 13:16 local time.
Reasoning behind the use of the fighter jet was to protect passengers against a supposed “bomb threat” from Palestinian militant group Hamas. Hamas have denied any involvement, with the Belarusian claim described as “completely implausible” by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
As a result , some governments have also described the event as a state-sponsored hijacking, with no bomb found on-board.
When the plane’s 126 passengers were due to disembark, police took away 26-year-old activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who were later arrested. Both individuals were taken to a Minsk jail.
Mr Protasevich’s father has told the BBC he fears his son may be tortured.
Mr Protasevich is the former editor of a media operation with a Telegram channel. After moving to Lithuania he covered the events of the 2020 Belarusian presidential election, after which he was charged with terrorism and inciting riots.
What has happened since the event?
Following a meeting in Brussels, just three days after the incident, the leaders of the 27 member states of the European Union told EU airlines not to fly over Belarus as well as promising further economic sanctions. They have also demanded the release of both Protasevich and his girlfriend.
Singapore Airline have also vowed to boycott Belarusian airspace.
Following this, Russia have refused access for several Moscow-bound Air France and Austrian Airlines flights. Russia and Belarus have strong political ties, formerly creating two parts of a unified country.
What impact will this have?
Industry experts predict the impact to be significant, as the aviation map of Europe is shaken up, with effects likely to have an impact further afield too.
If the situation escalates any further, passengers could see flight times increased, rising fares, and long-haul nonstop flights also potentially needing to make refuelling stops along the way. Extended flight times come with huge cost implications, with more fuel and pilots required.
A former director of Virgin Atlantic said that “it’ll send jitters around passengers at a time when they’re already jittery because of Covid,”.
An industry insider, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that the impact of the new restrictions was significant.
“No British operator, including Ryanair, has been flying over Crimea for some time, and that situation may take decades to resolve. So Belarus had seen a huge increase in traffic because people were going around Ukraine,” the source said.
To fly around Belarusian airspace, the source commented that airlines would have to “either go very far north into the polar region, or to go down to the Gulf States – but then, most European carriers would avoid flying over Iraq and Iran. So they’d probably go over Egypt, Saudi Arabia and across India.”
The issue with the current situation is that it is politically charged.
CEO of Osprey Flight Solutions, Andrew Nicholson, commented that as a result of this, issues could continue long into the future.
“I think perpetuating the use of airspace management for political ends is quite a dangerous thing for countries to be doing – not necessarily now, but it sets a precedent of people being able to do this into the future,” he said.