The Belarus Incident: Appropriate Reactions?
The Belarus force-down of Ryanair Flight 4978 may be “the aviation story of the year,” according to Mark Zee, but the Ops Group founder clearly questions the “emotional response” to it by the international community.
“I think it has to be unpacked carefully and divided into the components that affect aviation,” Zee told BCA in an exclusive interview. “It is not just one story, as there are a lot of elements that have to be considered carefully. My overriding thought is that in aviation we generally take time: We look and observe and figure things out and then we take action. And we are taught that this is the right way to do it.”
But if we look at Belarus, he continues, “we can see that there has been a very quick and not very well-thought-out response. One aspect is the extremely high emotional response--simply put, everybody is mad about it. It’s an outrage! I don’t disagree with that, but I have to acknowledge that we are having an emotional response that is very rare in aviation. Always in the past, it has been, ‘Wait for the investigation before you take action.’”
The Belarus air piracy event is not an uncommon occurrence, Zee reminds readers. “Every country has rules about interception procedures. In this case, it was a passenger aircraft with a lot of people on it, but the biggest problem was the ruse that there was a bomb on board. That’s the [real issue]…and that’s what creates the emotional response. It was ATC that passed the message.”
But the undeniable aspect of this story, Zee says, “is that, if you respond emotionally, you are rarely making good decisions. Really, a good example of why it is a problem is the FAA NOTAM [KICZ A0017/21] issued in response on Friday, May 29, that was badly written with lots of typos [apparently] by hands trembling over the keyboard. It does not make any sense. It ‘applies to all U.S. air carriers conducting passenger carrying operations.’ Apparently, cargo operations are just fine--why? What they are saying is that ‘We think they might do this again.’ What? A ludicrous hijacking? It just doesn’t make sense.
“All of these airspace risk warnings are using the same format as the post-Malaysia Flight 17 experience in 2014. We have to speak plainly and say what we mean. Part of that mechanism is these state warnings from four countries: the U.S., U.K., France and Germany. These are the ones we listen to.”
A Plea for Objectivity
Zee’s contention is that aviation authorities in the West need to take a step back, take a collective deep breath, and assess the Belarus threat from a more objective point of view. “The U.S. and U.K. warnings are not based on risk assessment from an aviation perspective but are emotional responses leading to political sanctions,” he says. “No one has put all the facts together. Is this a risk like those of countries at war [e.g., Ukraine in 2014]? We are so mad, we are not responding rationally. We have not been in this situation before--this is new territory for the airspace risk community.”
If we are going to retaliate, he suggests finding a more appropriate avenue to do so. “We’ve never retaliated before--[instead] we have warned aviation away from threats. Here is the key: Aviation authorities and government departments that issue airspace risk assessments must remain free from political bias. I only need to know what the significant risk is to my operation. And no one can say [definitively] now that it is dangerous to fly over Belarus. Even the aircraft involved was not harmed--it landed safely and carried on to Vilnius.”
This is not new territory for business aviation, Zee pointes out. “How many operators will not fly over Iran? Most will not, as the relationships between Iran and many countries are not good. Back in the 1980s, the crew of Korean Air 007 might have paid more attention to where they were had they thought about the risk [of flying along the Russian border during the Cold War]. There were three corridors that entered into Berlin back in the day [before German reunification] with warnings in big red letters on either side of them not to stray.
“In aviation, we have to understand that this is bigger than us--we just happened to be the mechanism that allowed them [Lukashenko and company] to get their guy. ATC was just ordered to say that there was a bomb aboard that airplane. It was not flying over a conflict zone. We have to be consistent and not cry wolf.
“It happened once…and there is no guarantee that it will happen again,” Zee concludes. “We don’t like [the fact] that ATC lied--but they were lied to, as well! And they don’t like it any more than we do. They’re just as angry as we are. This sort of nonsense is so far out of the norm for a controller! They need the benefit of the doubt; it was the dictatorship that gave that order.”