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Unfriendly skies

The details are astonishing – an EU-flagged passenger plane travelling from Athens to Vilnius is told, whilst flying over Belarus, that a bomb is onboard, supposedly planted by the Palestinian militant group Hamas in revenge for EU support of Israel (Hamas, an odd candidate for such an attack to begin with, has since rejected the accusation). The Ryanair pilots are informed that it must change course; in line with standard protocol, they do so. Escorted by a fighter jet, the aircraft is brought to Minsk, where Belarusian security forces forcibly remove a dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich, and his partner, Sofia Sapega. A number of Russian nationals are also reportedly removed from the plane (given the close links between Belarus’s Lukashenko regime and Putin’s Russia, there are suspicions the passengers were part of the operation against Protasevich). Russia has since dismissed this as untrue. Security forces are (inevitably) unable to find the phantom bomb and, after hours of being held hostage on the tarmac, the plane is released. Shortly after, the Ryanair press office published a statement confirming that the aircraft arrived safely at its intended destination following its detention (the Irish carrier subsequently revised their press release to label the diversion “an act of aviation piracy”). Protasevich remains in the custody of Belarusian authorities. This brazen act, carried out under the pretence of averting an act of terror, has provoked anger from all quarters. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the incident a “state hijacking”. “This is an attack on democracy. This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer,” she told a press conference on Monday (24 May). US Secretary of State, Antony J Blinken, said in a statement that “this shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers”. It is particularly egregious that a country would use false security threats to manipulate the route of an aircraft. Doing so will undermine trust in the aviation system, according to the European Cockpit Association, a group representing pilots. “This unprecedented act of unlawful interference will potentially upend all the assumptions about the safest response to bomb threats on flight and interceptions,” the ECA said in a statement, calling on Ryanair to support the cabin crew and pilots’ “physical and mental well-being after such a challenging and stressful event”. That Belarus would consider the fallout from detaining an EU aircraft acceptable collateral damage to nab a journalist is itself disturbing. In dramatic fashion, the saga exposes the risk of charting a flight path through unfriendly skies. EU leaders reacted swiftly, using this week’s EU summit to agree on a series of sanctions and security measures to hurt the Belarusian regime. In addition to yet-to-be-defined sanctions against individuals, the European Council called on EU-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus. Belarusian flights are also banned from entering EU airspace. The decision will cause headaches for carriers who must now reroute all flights heading to the Baltic states or further afield through Poland and neighbouring countries, avoiding the Lukashenko-controlled airspace. But the administrative burden and extra fuel costs seem a small price to pay for safety. This story is still unfolding. Details are coming into focus as time goes by. But some aspects are already clear – the consequences of Belarus’s actions will continue to reverberate across the aviation sector, and across geopolitics, for some time.

Sanctions on Belarus