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/

Brexit & Aviation 66

The simple phrase to “kick the can down the road” has been in use in political language for a long time.  It means to put-off work on an important issue for a later date.  When faced with an apparently insurmountable problem it’s just one of the tactics that can be used.  Often the hope is that the passage of time will yield new solutions or change the environment sufficiently for an existing solution to become viable.  Guess what?  The longer the clock runs the more dangerous this short-term tactic becomes.  If there’s a deadline looming for the delivery of a project or a hard and fast legal barrier sitting – immovable, then this is when the situation gets tense and the risks of complete failure escalate.

35 days on the clock.  There’s now an expectation that Prime Minister May will ask for a 3-month extension to the Art 50 timings.  This is an optimistic scenario but it’s the only practical way that legislation can be passed should a vote in Parliament given the Government a green light to proceed.

Brexit could be called off.  The complete failure that the No Deal outcome represents will blow a massive hole in the political landscape of the UK Parliament and the whole Country.  Will the PM take that risk?  It’s difficult to tell.  But it’s easy to tell that the UK is not prepared for an almighty crash out of the European Union (EU).

This week in aviation we have a reminder of the power and strength of European cooperation.  After a farewell tour, the Tornado aircraft is set to retire from Royal Air Force (RAF)[1] at the end of March.  The aircraft was built as part of a consortium between the UK (BAE Systems), Germany (MBB) and Italy (Aeritalia).  The Panavia Tornado was designed and produced by the industries of 3 European Countries, in one of the biggest, most challenging and successful multi-national aircraft programmes ever run.

It’s part of my history too.  I remember working on cockpit equipment for the Tornado ECR (Electronic Combat and Reconnaissance) aircraft.  That was in the 1980s.  It was my first experience of working on a multi-national programme.  Equipment designed in the UK was produced in Germany as part of the close working arrangement between two companies[2][3].  Today, both of those companies are American owned but continue to operate at the same sites.

There is no doubt that we are stronger together in Europe when we work together.  Brexit is a devastating blow to the successful history of European cooperation.   It’s no-good saying that this is not an issue for the EU.  That is to totally ignore the reality of the closer ties that are being forged in the EU.  The European Defence Agency (EDA)[4] supports its Member States in improving their defence capabilities through European cooperation.  That will grow in strength.

[1] @RoyalAirForce

[2] Collins Aerospace. Located in Heidelberg key capabilities: avionics for fighters and trainers; ground vehicle electronics; and space products.

[3] GE Aviation Systems (formerly Smiths Aerospace), Cheltenham.

[4] https://www.eda.europa.eu/