EDITORIAL: States should cut Belarus out of the global air transport system
The hijacking of a commercial airliner in any circumstances is a disturbing and criminal act. For such action to be organized and authorized by a state government is truly shocking.
While the facts of what happened Sunday are still emerging, this much is clear: A Ryanair 737 operating a scheduled flight from Athens to Vilnius was intercepted in Belarusian airspace by a fighter jet and ordered to divert and land at the Belarusian capital of Minsk. There, all passengers and crew were ordered off the plane, their bags were offloaded and searched, and at least one of the passengers—a journalist who is a well-known critic of the Belarusian government—was detained and not permitted to rejoin the flight when it departed for Vilnius five hours later.
This was a horrifying ordeal for the passengers and crew. The fighter jet’s intercept actions alone could have jeopardized the safety of all.
ICAO says this act could have been a contravention of the Chicago Convention, to which Belarus is a signatory. That possibility, and much more, needs to be fully investigated and answered. It is reassuring that there has been swift and widespread international response demanding such an investigation.
But Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is unlikely to be cowed by an investigation or concerned with its findings, which he will almost certainly dispute.
Governments should and must respond to this bully-turned-pirate in a way that directly punishes him for this aggression. They can cut Belarus’ air links to the world. If individual states prohibit the airlines registered to their country from flying in or out of Belarus, and ban Belarusian airlines from entering, Belarus will lose much of its international connectivity. This will be hard on the country’s already-suffering citizens. Allies like Russia will no doubt help maintain some connectivity. But it will send a strong message that being part of the global commercial air transport system is a privilege—and an economic enabler—that requires all players to operate by the internationally agreed-upon rules.
Those that ignore the laws of international aviation or, as in this case, blatantly rip right through them, should have that privilege rescinded.
Lukashenko’s diabolical order sets a precedent that any airline, flight crew or passenger should find chilling. A routine flight and all onboard become political targets and hostages in a country that was neither their departure or arrival destination and where personal freedoms and protections are close to zero.
Airline managers can and will make best company decisions on the safety and risks of flying into Belarus or through its airspace. But state suspensions will make those decisions easier and send a clear political message that airlines cannot. State thugs and hijackers will no more be tolerated than individual criminals who threaten the safety of commercial flying.