International aviation industry roiled by Belarus jet diversion

Aviation experts say a decades-old system of cooperation now faces a crucial test under the glare of East-West tensions.

Some European airlines immediately began avoiding Belarus airspace, a key route for long-haul flights between Western Europe and Asia, after Belarus forced a Ryanair plane carrying dissident journalist Roman Protasevich to land in Minsk and arrested him [File: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Photo]

Global aviation faces its biggest political crisis in years after Belarus scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to detain a dissident journalist, prompting outrage from the United States and Europe.

Some European airlines immediately began avoiding Belarus airspace, a key corridor between Western Europe and Moscow and a route for long-haul flights between western Europe and Asia.

Flightradar24 tracking data showed at least one Ryanair flight avoiding Belarus, adding hundreds of miles to its trip, and Latvian carrier airBaltic said it had decided not to use the country’s airspace “until the situation becomes clearer”.

“We, like all the European airlines are looking for guidance today from the European authorities and from NATO,” Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary told Ireland’s Newstalk radio.

Others, including Chinese and Turkish carriers, continued to fly over Belarus, which charges euro-denominated fees to use its airspace. Each flight brings Minsk revenue equivalent to some $500, adding up to millions each year, a Belarus official said.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it had notified its 31 member states about the incident and an airline source said the agency had recommended “caution” over Belarus.

Aviation experts said a decades-old system of cooperation now faces a crucial test under the glare of East-West tensions.

The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said the incident may have contravened a core aviation treaty: part of the international order created after World War II.

“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,” it said on Sunday.

But experts cautioned that calls from some Western politicians for the outright closure of Belarus airspace would come up against tough obstacles.

Under global aviation rules, neither ICAO nor any nation can close another’s airspace, but some, such as the US, have the authority to tell their own airlines not to fly there.

The US said it had called for a meeting of ICAO’s 36-nation council, which has the power to investigate any situation that hinders the development of international aviation.

“It looks like a gross abuse of the [Chicago] Convention. It’s piracy,” Kevin Humphreys, a former Irish aviation regulator, said of the Belarus incident.

No regulator

Global airlines called for an investigation backed by the European Union.

“We strongly condemn any interference or requirement for landing of civil aviation operations that is inconsistent with the rules of international law,” said the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“A full investigation by competent international authorities is needed,” said IATA, which represents about 280 airlines but does not include Ryanair among its members.

It was not immediately clear how a probe would be organised.

Although highly regulated at a national level, and supported by globally harmonised rules to keep skies safe, aviation lacks a global policeman to avoid constant disputes over sovereignty.

While it has no regulatory power, ICAO sits at the centre of a system of safety and security standards that operates across political barriers but requires an often slow-moving consensus.

The rules are managed through the Montreal-based agency by its 193 members, including Belarus, and ICAO has only rarely become directly involved in matters such as airport security.

ICAO was thrown into discord over a wave of hijackings in the 1980s. Back then, the issue was whether to oblige countries to agree to let hijacked aircraft land on their soil.

Humphreys said it would be the first time in memory that the agency has had to ponder accusations that one of its own member countries had forced a plane to land, in what Ryanair’s O’Leary called “state-sponsored hijacking”.

Belarus said on Monday that its controllers had only issued “recommendations” to Ryanair pilots.

Russia accused the West of hypocrisy, citing the case of a Bolivian presidential plane forced to land in Austria in 2013 and a Belarus jetliner ordered to land in Ukraine in 2016.

In 2013, Bolivia said then-President Evo Morales’s plane had been diverted over suspicions that former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, wanted by Washington for divulging secret details of US surveillance activities, was on board.

But aviation experts said the freedoms extended to civil airliners do not apply to presidential or state aircraft, which need special permission to enter another country’s airspace.

In the 2016 incident, Belarus national carrier Belavia said it had demanded compensation from Ukraine.

Lawyers say any probe or legal claim would also have to plough through a tangle of jurisdictions typical of liberalised air travel: a Polish-registered jet flown by an Irish group between EU nations Greece and Lithuania, over non-EU Belarus.

Under the 1944 Chicago Convention – also known as the Convention on International Civil Aviation – each country has sovereignty over its own airspace, though the treaty prohibits any use of civil aviation that may endanger safety.

But the right to overfly other countries is contained in a side treaty called the International Air Services Transit Agreement, of which Belarus is not a member.

A separate 1971 treaty that includes Belarus outlaws the seizure of aircraft or knowingly communicating false information in a way that endangers aircraft safety.

Source: Reuters