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/

Still work in progress

Has it really been 100 days since the final, final, final Brexit day? 

The UK left the European Union (EU) on 31 January 2020.  A Withdrawal Agreement (WA) that the UK Government agreed with the EU, established a transition period that came to an end the day this year started.  Now, a new EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) has been in force for 97 days. So, it’s not a bad time to have a go at writing a 100-day review.  It’s often a period of reflection that is used to assess a newly elected politician.  It gives an indication of the direction of travel. 

Last year, although it was a top priority of UK industry to stay in, the UK has left the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) based in Cologne.  So, there’s no official UK participation in the EASA activities by right and the UK is treated as any other 3rd Country.  EU law no longer applies to the UK. Much of what was previously applied has been swept up in new UK Legislation[1]

Regulation-wise, to figure out where we are now, it’s necessary to combine the officially published corresponding text of UK Legislation and EU Commission Regulations with the EASA Acceptable Means of Compliance and Guidance Material, including amendments.  Some smart people have done this work, but the challenge will be keeping the whole paperwork construction up to date. 

Informed commentators have often said that a Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement (BASA) and a Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement (CATA) are needed between the EU and UK.  To some extent the TCA starts the ball rolling by calling for the establishment of a number of committees. 

On the basis that there’s far to much still in flux to discuss, I’ll bite off one key aviation related subject. 

Despite the massive impact of the COVID pandemic on international civil aviation there remains a demand for qualified engineers.  In many ways their roles as Airworthiness Inspectors or Licenced Aircraft Maintenance Engineers have become even more important than ever. Traditionally, there’s no doubt that the UK has been good at training aircraft engineering personnel. Students from all over the world have gained their licences in the UK.  It’s one of the most demanding professions in the world but their dedication to the highest standards keeps flying safe. 

Whilst the UK was a member of the EASA system a licence granted in the UK by an approved organisation was recognised throughout the EASA Member States and beyond.  One of the powerful arguments for continued participation in EASA was the avoidance of the duplication of approvals, certification, and licencing. Each duplication comes with a fee and time consuming paperwork.

The political decisions having been made and that’s exactly what we now have in place. Duplication. In fact, it’s worse than that because there’s asymmetry in the current situation. 

The UK CAA advises Part 66 licence holders to take action to minimise impact on their privileges.  There are several combinations and permutations that can be considered.  There’s a useful updated section of information for licensed engineers on the UK CAA website[2]

Engineers who continue to release EU-registered aircraft to service outside the UK will need to transfer their licence to the National Aviation Authority (NAA) of an EASA Member State. If an engineer works outside the EU and UK, on EU-registered aircraft, a UK Part-66 licence will no longer be valid. 

If an engineer has a non-UK Part-66 licence they will be able to continue to work on UK-registered aircraft for up to two years after the end of the transition period, unless your licence changes or expires (whichever occurs soonest).

There’s also an exemption for engineers who hold a EU Member State issued EASA Part-66 licence who only received
or changed their EASA licence after the departure of the UK from the EU.

All of this is high politics because a Part 66 licence, UK or EU is granted on the same technical basis. Yes, there’s potential of regulatory divergence or new ways of doing business in future. However, it’s difficult to understand what the justification for any divergence might be but the possibility exists.  And as avid Brexit supporters like to point out the UK is no longer subject to EU legislation.  That has no impact of the UK’s need to meet its international obligations. Both UK and EU need to be complient with the ICAO Convention.

There’s much work in progress. Now, is a moment when it all looks like a kitten as been playing with a large ball of wool that has rolled down a staircase.


[1] https://info.caa.co.uk/uk-regulations/

[2]https://info.caa.co.uk/uk-eu-transition/licensed-engineers/

Flight, Risk & Reflections 15.

A large full moon graced the December sky early this morning. The local park was a picture of frosty ground, joggers and dog walkers, magpies and one or two wrens hopping around as the sun rose.  I looked up and slithers of cloud gave a reddish hew to the eastern sky. I remembered the farmer’s rhyme: Red in the morning, shepherds warning. Also, clear to me was the absence of aircraft streaking across the cold sky.  I’m located only a few miles north of London Gatwick airport.  Last December the same scene would have included aircraft contrails going left and right as morning flights arrived and departed London. 2020 is a year like no other.  In this pandemic year worldwide, deaths now approach 1.8 million. 

The UK left the European Union (EU) on 31 January 2020.  A Withdrawal Agreement that the UK Government agreed with the EU established a transition period that comes to an end in a couple of days.  I think many people are mighty relieved that the UK and EU reached an agreement in principle on Thursday 24 December 2020. This is about as last minute as it was possible to be in the long negotiations. 

All being well, a new agreement between the EU and UK should start from New Year’s Day, 1 January 2021.  This EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement includes obligations on both parties for air transport and aviation safety. Again, many people will be mighty relieved that these topics are addressed.  In all I’ve written in this blog there’s been much speculation about the road ahead. Now, for the first time in four and a half years we have some indication of what comes next.  Like any long story, it’s not all good and its not all bad. 

There are implications for all aspects of European aviation.  In air transport, UK aircraft operators will not have the freedoms of the past. They may need to restructure to be able to offer comprehensive services to the destinations currently flown. Low-cost operator Ryanair is implementing voting restrictions on company shares owned by non-EU nationals from New Year.

It’s good to see the emphasis on cooperation[1] on aviation safety.  New dedicated committees will look at how to work together in the future.  I hope they work at a technical level and renew cooperation rather than further politicising inter-institutional relationships.  Regulatory duplication and barriers need to be avoided.  Now, practical processes and procedures must make good on the promise of close cooperation. The need to ensure implementation of aviation safety rules and regulations has not diminished.

It’s interesting to note that each party to the agreement may request consultations at any time concerning the safety standards maintained and administered by the other party in areas relating to aeronautical facilities, flight crew, aircraft and the operation of aircraft.  This suggests conditions for dealing with the immediate outcome of aircraft accidents and serious incidents but it’s not explicit.  As I found in the early days of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), from 2004 a lot depends on how the relevant legal texts are interpreted. One small sentence can mean much if the parties choose to make it so.  A deal maybe agreed but this is not done. This is the start of work that can build a successful aviation system.  With good will on both sides this can happen, but it will take a decade of effort. 


[1]The Trade and Cooperation Agreement establishes the following Specialised Committees:……

(b) The Specialised Committee on Air Transport;

(c) The Specialised Committee on Aviation Safety;

Flight, Risk & Reflections 14.

The end of the transitional period of the process of UK withdrawal from the European Union (EU) is just days away. I believe most people are looking for some light at the end of the tunnel. A tunnel that we have been in since mid-2016. Now, that light looks dim. Dim as a dull cold winter’s day.     

The EU has triggered Brexit No-Deal contingency plans[1].  These plans are to ensure basic services between the UK and the EU for 6 months in 2021. Then it’s anybody’s guess what will happen.

Flying is down to levels last seen in the 1970s. This maybe joy for those who protest at aviation’s environmental footprint. But, given that aviation will be vital to power the world out of the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 virus, this is not good news. 

Said it before but I’ll say it again, the triple blow of a Brexit No-Deal and COVID-19 and urgent need for action on Climate Change are going to mean hair shirts years ahead. There’s a great deal of bluff from politicians but the bills keep mounting up. We cannot ignore the oncoming trains. 

Worldwide COVID-19 deaths have now topped 1.6 million[2]

In this crisis, there’s no doubt that the UK has a superbly capable science community. Within that specialist community there are world renowned experts[3]. They work in a global context.  So, the persistent echo of nationalism in politicians COVID-19 response is saddening.  Recently politicians have spoken as if the task of public safety regulation was a competition.  This is sheer folly. It undermines trust.  Ensuring either vaccines or transport systems are safe is NOT a matter for national competition.  We all have vulnerabilities and safety is only assured when we are all safe. 

The triple whammy means the UK aerospace industry is under pressure and needs strategic support from the UK Government to sustain its high value jobs. So far, a deaf ear is all they offer businesses that create prosperity across the country. 

Also, on the horizon is that the UK will be under pressure to scrap European tariffs applied to Boeing imports imposed as a result of the international dispute between Boeing and AIRBUS. The subsidy dispute was between the EU and US and so lawyers are saying the UK should step aside. Sadly, this is the sort of situation that will make Europeans seriously question future aerospace investments in the UK. 


[1] https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2020/12/16/council-endorses-transport-contingency-measures-in-case-of-no-deal-brexit/#

[2] https://www.statnews.com/feature/coronavirus/covid-19-tracker/?utm_campaign=cv_landing

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000qdzd/panorama-the-race-for-a-vaccine

Flight, Risk & Reflections 8.

2-years ago I wrote: “Early in the year, prudently the EU published a series of notices concerning the “No Deal” outcome.  These were stark and based upon the UK becoming a “Third Country” with a blank sheet of paper in front of it.  That’s a Country with no special arrangements with the EU.” It seems that they (EU) were very prudent

That said, let’s be optimistic. News reports are that the UK and EU have transitioned into an intensive phase of negotiations with the aim of getting a much-cherished Free Trade Agreement (FTA)[1].  Here we are coming up to the last week of October 2020. 

Although the outcome remains unclear the wisdom of being prepared for the end of the Transition Period is unquestionable[2]. Aviation has been trying to get to grips with the ups and downs of Brexit for 4-years, but this is the real crunch time. 

As I’ve commented before, the departure of the UK from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) was unexpected only a year ago but it’s going to happen on 1 January 2021. This will mean more “red tape” and regulatory costs for UK industry, but the UK Government is unmoved in its position. 

For aircraft design, UK based Design approval holders need to apply to the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for a UK Design Organisation Approval (DOA)[3]. The UK CAA will continue to apply the European rules as set out in Regulation EU No 748/2012 that determines the rules for the certification of design organisations. Part-21 subpart J of this Regulation concerns the Design of aircraft or the associated components.

For aircraft production, UK based production approval holders are advised to apply for an EASA Third Country Production Organisation Approval (POA)[4]. The same is true for those maintenance organisations who want to work on European Member State registered aircraft.  This is an administrative procedure within EASA and so certificates will only be issued to UK organisations, all being well, after the transition period has expired. 

A lot will depend on what’s in any EU-UK aviation agreements as to any mutual acceptance or recognition of approvals.  Now, no one is able to predict the outcome of negotiations. We all must rely on statements from the UK Government and EU Commission on the latest progress of negotiations. 

To me this is a mighty strange state of affairs. If I reflect on the detailed and thoughtful groundwork done for the creation of EASA back in 2002-3, it’s as if a everything has been thrown to the four winds.  


[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-25/brexit-talks-extended-to-oct-28-as-u-k-indicates-optimism

[2] https://www.adsgroup.org.uk/blog/prepare-for-the-end-of-the-transition-period-with-our-brexit-webinars/

[3] https://www.caa.co.uk/Commercial-industry/Aircraft/Airworthiness/Organisation-and-maintenance-programme-approvals/EASA-Part-21/Apply-for-a-Part-21-Subpart-J-approval/

[4] https://www.easa.europa.eu/brexit-early-applications#others

Flying, Democracy and Safety 1.

woman in white face mask
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

National lockdowns are being effective in controlling COVID-19 outbreaks. The tricky part is that the fear that has been induced in people to encourage compliance with the lockdowns means that any relaxation of rules is going to be difficult. That’s only right and proper, given that the management of risk is a delicate balancing act. Not only that but fatality totals have risen to truly staggering levels.

What is evident is that the way the international air transport industry has been working, its systems, procedures and business models are going to need a radical shakeup. Coronavirus is a game changer. According to @IATA the impact of COVID-19 crisis on long-haul travel is to be “much more severe and of a longer duration” than what is expected in domestic markets.

Aviation safety work is important per se, but it has the added value of maintaining public confidence in air transport. In the past, a minority had a fear of flying.  For as long as we have COVID-19, the situation is different. Now, it’s likely that many more people will be finding alternatives or putting off flying either for business or pleasure.

Governments have introduced measures and restrictions at borders. If these stay in place summer holidays are going to be off this year.

The European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) continue to try to create a new partnership. The agenda for this week’s round of EU-UK negotiations have been published[1].  It’s good to see that Aviation Safety gets a couple of hours on Wednesday, 13 May 2020.  No doubt a progress report will be forthcoming by the end of the week.

There’s still a possibility that a limited deal could be struck by October 2020.  However, it continues to look unlikely that the UK will seek an extension to talks despite the risks. With confirmation that the UK is in an economic recession the hard-line on the Brexit negotiation time limit looks suicidal. The combination of events is extremely bad.

The great Brexit divide in British politics is alive and kicking. It’s deepening as people harden their views under the weight of the Coronavirus crisis. The political slogan of 2016: “Take back control” now sounds hollow and meaninglessness.

If the EU-UK negotiations fail and a No-Deal Brexit outcome results the harm it will do to ourselves and to our allies, friends and neighbours will be unforgivable in normal times.  It will be unbelievably irresponsible in the middle of an economic and health crisis.

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/brexit_files/info_site/hl-agenda-round-3.pdf