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. 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) will carry out an independent investigation into this Ryanair flight. Strong condemnation has come from the European Union (EU). 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.