FR4978

So, what’s the problem? A civil aircraft with passengers on-board, on a scheduled flight, flying over a sovereign State was diverted because of an alleged terrorist threat. Aircraft lands safely and in the end most of the passengers continue to their intended destinations.

Well, the case of the forced diversion of Ryanair flight #FR4978, a commercial passenger aircraft over Belarus on Sunday, 23 May 2021, is a matter for grave concern. The aircraft was carrying European citizens and residents between two European Union (EU) capitals.

The track of the Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens (ATH) to Vilnius (VNO) was posted on Twitter[1]. The Boeing 737-800 was diverted to Minsk in Belarus whilst it was about to start its approach to Vilnius airport in Lithuania.  The Ryanair flight maintained 39,000 ft toward Lithuania before beginning a diversion about 73km from VNO and only 30 km from border.  The Polish registered Boeing passenger aircraft (SP-RSM) was forced to land in Belarus.  

More than 5 hours after the landing of flight FR4978, the aircraft remained on the ground in Minsk.  Whilst the aircraft was on the ground the Belarusian authorities detained opposition activists, Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega.

Was the aircraft hijacked to go to Minsk? Well, there’s no report of force being used on-board the aircraft, so strictly speaking this may not be a hijacking.  The mystery deepens when considering that if the alleged terrorist threat was credible, it would have been far safer to continuing into Lithuanian airspace and land at the intended destination. 

Also, there’s the Belarusian military fast-jet aircraft (MIG 29) that accompanied flight FR4978. This could be considered aggressive intimidation of the Ryanair flight crew.  It certainly limited their flight’s options in respect of the situation.  The military interception of a civil aircraft for political reasons is a serious act and one that can put the safety of passengers in peril. So, whether it’s called a “forced diversion” or a “State Hijacking” it could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention. That’s the basis on which international civil aviation is normally conducted. 

It’s now clear that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)[2] will carry out an independent investigation into this Ryanair flight[3].   Strong condemnation has come from the European Union (EU)[4]. The aircraft operator, the State of Registry, and many of the passengers were from EU Member States. 

If the investigation concludes that officials in Belarus faked a bomb threat to divert this Ryanair flight for political purposes, then this is a gravely troubling act that has horrendous implications for international civil aviation.  No other authorities had knowledge of a bomb threat to this Ryanair Athens-Vilnius flight. The Greek Civil Aviation Authority, as the aircraft took-off from Athens, has stated that it received no bomb warning.

This event is an attack on European democracy, freedom of expression, freedom of movement and safety. The Belarus authorities need to immediately release Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega.

Update 1: EASA issues Safety Directive calling on Member States to mandate avoidance of Belarus airspace.

Update 2: Simillar thoughts: The interception of #Ryanair Flight #FR4978 – legal or not, carriers have been put on notice.


[1] https://www.flightradar24.com/

[2] https://www.icao.int/Newsroom/Pages/ICAO-Council-agrees-to-pursue-fact-finding-investigation-into-Belarus-incident.aspx

[3] https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/05/1092812?123

[4] https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/05/24/belarus-declaration-by-the-high-representative-on-behalf-of-the-eu-on-the-forced-diversion-of-ryanair-flight-fr4978-to-minsk-on-23-may-2021/

Here’s where we are, I think.

May is a month of rebirth. Trees look greener than they do all year round. A fresh breeze and light rain fans this greenness as the natural world wakes up. It’s a good time for looking at life anew.  Sunny spells and showers come and go as we take stock of the spring. 

Worldwide COVID-19 pandemic deaths are up to just over 3.3 million[1].  Despite the successes of its suppression in the UK, the virus continues to rage around the world.  Sadly, desperation continues to spread across India.  On the positive side, vaccination plans are successfully being implemented. I’m more than ready for my second jab in just over a week’s time. 

What hasn’t changed is that aviation chiefs continue to provide roadmaps to bring back some semblance of normal but often sit back mystified at Government reactions and peculiar decisions. 

For international travel, to and from the UK, a curious traffic light system[2] is being put in place in the UK.  Unfortunately, there’s a lack of transparency as to why countries are categorised as they are in this unique national system.  Obviously, it’s better than a national lockdown with unending uncertainty but there’s little to be happy about. 

On entry control, the practice of quarantine hotels is unpopular and of highly questionable effectiveness. They are a crude measure that is discriminating, expensive and unsustainable.

The European Union (EU) has been slow in reaction and is still testing COVID-19 vaccination, test, and recovery certificates.  There are reports that this system is on-track to be rolled out next month.

It’s a miserable time to travel across borders. Plans are made and cancelled and re-made. Travellers are often left out of pocket and in limbo.  Yes, these are extraordinary circumstances but as advanced nations our general performance in managing the situation is remarkably poor. 

Although UK Government decisions are said to be guided by evidence and the science, there’s a fair amount of ideology driving decisions contrary common sense. 

Surprisingly, if the recent round of elections is anything to go by, the UK Government is sitting pretty. Now, its political opponents who are the ones who are struggling.  Commentators have speculated that this is a kind of national Stockholm syndrome[3]. I wonder. 

Post Coronavirus recovery of UK air traffic may not be seen until the end of 2022. 

The EU has developed a broad system of relationships with neighbouring states. Post Brexit there remains lots of loose ends in the relationship between EU and UK.  In fact, it’s probably time to stop using the word Brexit altogether. It’s not a meaningful word looking forward.    

Calls for a Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement (BASA) and a Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement (CATA) between the EU and UK are muted but their importance remains.  Aviation and aerospace industry voices are being ignored. 


[1] Worldwide (from Johns Hopkins): Deaths: 3,322,294.  

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/traffic-light-system-safe-return-to-international-travel

[3] What is Stockholm syndrome? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22447726