What the Belarus Air Piracy Incident Means for Business Aviation

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Consider this international operations scenario:

You’re at the helm of your employer’s new ultra-long-range business jet, making Mach 0.87 at FL410 in international airspace on a gorgeous cloudless day and feeling smug at your good fortune. All the bells and whistles are performing perfectly, and the FMS has calculated that you’ll reach your destination early, whereupon the boss will clap you on the shoulder and say, “Good job, keep it up.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Then you glance out the side window, and there’s a MiG-29, its under-wing pylons festooned with air-to-air missiles, cruising sedately off your wingtip. Next comes the radio call from ATC you never thought in your wildest imaginings you’d ever hear: Follow the military escort and land or you’ll be shot out of the sky. And now, captain, you--and your crew and passengers--are in for a very bad day.

So were the six-member crew and 122 passengers aboard Ryanair Flight 4978 on May 23. The Boeing 737-800 was cruising at FL400 in the airspace of Belarus en route from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, when ATC radioed the pilots that a “potential security threat” was on board the aircraft, “probably a bomb.” Although the Irish airline’s Boeing, registered in Poland as SP-RSM, was only 39 nm from Vilnius, it was ordered to immediately divert east to Minsk, the Belarus capital, considerably farther away. To add a little heat to the demand, a Belarus Air Force MiG-29 promptly appeared outside the cockpit windows, allegedly to provide an “escort” to the revised destination.

Now put yourself in the position of this cockpit crew. As a professional pilot, your greatest responsibility is the safety of your passengers. What would you do? Make a run for the Lithuanian border? The bomb warning and instructions to immediately divert came from ATC--always a reliably truthful source, right?--so, of course, you’d follow the MiG and land. And that’s what the crew of Ryanair 4978 did, keying 7700 into the 737’s transponder and accepting ATC vectors to Minsk International Airport (UMMS), landing 30 min. after the initial radio call.

When the 737 taxied onto the ramp, it was immediately surrounded by men in military-style uniforms--some with dogs--and airport fire crews. After another half hour--while the “uniforms” stood casually around the aircraft joking with each other and the passengers and crew grew progressively more anxious, wondering, if a bomb was supposed to be on the aircraft, why they were being held in the cabin--the passengers were finally ordered to deplane in groups of five with their luggage and held on the ramp. The luggage was spread out on the concrete and inspections began with the dogs.

One passenger in particular, a young man, seemed to be of interest to the uniforms, who immediately surrounded him, treating him harshly and searching his luggage twice before leading him away to be arrested in the terminal. Then, the crew and passengers, some with children, were hustled into the terminal, where they were left standing in a dark, guarded hallway for 3 hr. with no explanation or access to water, food, or even restrooms.

Brought Down by a Lie

We know now that the bomb threat was a ruse--an outright lie--to compel the Ryanair cockpit crew to remain in Belarus airspace and be forced to land at Minsk, far away from their filed destination in Lithuania. It seems the sole reason for this act of deception was to capture the hapless passenger, Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist and outspoken critic of President Alexander Lukashenko who had been living in exile since 2019. He was traveling with his girlfriend, Russian citizen Sofia Sapego, who also was detained.

After 3 hr., the passengers were escorted from their temporary hallway prison and led to a lounge with a small cafeteria, and 7 hr. and 31 min. after being forced down at Minsk, Ryanair 4978 took off for a 39-min. flight to Vilnius. It is noteworthy that there were five fewer passengers aboard the 737 when it landed in the Lithuanian capital. The absentees, of course, included Protasevich and Sapego; it has since been learned that the other three were members of the Belarus KGB state security service (which continues to carry its Soviet-era initials). So, the whole caper--the lie about the alleged bomb on board and the MiG-enforced diversion and landing at Minsk--was a setup that began in Athens just to extract a Belarusian dissident from the aircraft.

The next day, Lukashenko, a Soviet-era dictator and currently the longest-serving ruler in Europe, not only admitted to ordering the Ryanair 737 takedown but bragged about it. Then he signed a new law to further crush dissent. Much loathed by many of his subjects, Lukashenko locked down his country long before the Covid-19 pandemic, taking control of media outlets, hunting down and jailing anyone perceived as contrary, and spurning the modernizations offered by détente elsewhere in the former USSR. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Belarus (originally Belorussia) became increasingly isolated from the West. As a result, Belarus today in many ways is like a trip back to the Soviet-era 1960s and the Cold War.

But in recent years, as in other countries under dictatorial rule, young people have begun to agitate for more freedoms and control over their own lives. Protasevich was one of them, founding a social media site to encourage opposition to the repressive government, especially since Lukashenko’s reelection last year, which his detractors claim was rigged. Eventually, Protasevich fled Belarus in fear for his life, continuing his work from abroad. About a week after being snatched from the Ryanair flight, he appeared on Belarusian government television and confessed to having committed crimes against the state. Several of his fellow dissidents, also expatriates living outside Belarus, claimed he appeared to have been tortured, a common practice of Lukashenko’s security thugs. (Several Ryanair 4978 passengers debriefed after the flight stated that when the captain announced over the PA that the plane was being diverted to Minsk, Protasevich became visibly agitated. He obviously knew what awaited him.)

International Outrage

Lukashenko’s illegal act of seizing a commercial aircraft while aloft--Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary termed it “a case of state-sponsored hijacking”--drew immediate outrage from many world leaders. (One exception, not surprisingly, was Russian President Vladimir Putin, to whom Lukashenko appealed for support.) In Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also characterized the Belarus action as a hijacking, followed by the EU immediately banning flights into the airspace of its 27 member states by Belarus national airline Belavia and other carriers licensed in the Eastern European state. Brussels then called for EU-based airlines to avoid flying to Belarus destinations. Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Air France and KLM quickly pledged they would cease operations into Belarus. And the U.K., now separated from the EU, joined the exodus, ordering its airlines to avoid Belarus airspace “in order to keep passengers safe.”

While no U.S. airlines operate into Belarus, instead transferring ticket-holders into the country through code-sharing agreements with European carriers, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that Belarus had “endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” and demanded the immediate release of Protasevich and a full investigation, according to The New York Times. Meanwhile, the FAA issued International Security NOTAM KICZ A0017/21 applying to the Minsk FIR advising all U.S. “passenger-carrying” operators flying in or through Belarus airspace to exercise “extreme caution” until the FAA could “better assess the circumstances of the 23 May 2021 diversion of a civil passenger aircraft to Belarus”--not exactly a prohibition but a recommendation to consider, in the FAA’s words, “operational risk assessments.”

On June 21, the U.S., EU, U.K. and Canada jointly imposed sanctions on several Belarus government officials believed to be involved in the Ryanair force-down ordered by Lukashenko. Asset freezes and travel bans were also imposed.

How long this widespread umbrage and the resultant sanctions will last remains to be seen. But in the meantime, a virtual wall of no-fly airspace exists in Eastern Europe. Since Russian Army-backed separatists shot down a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 over Eastern Ukraine in 2014 with an antiaircraft missile, killing 298 passengers and crew, most carriers and business aviation operators have avoided transiting Ukrainian airspace, as the country’s civil war continues. Now add Belarus to the north of Ukraine, cutting off the most direct routes between Europe and Asia--what formerly constituted an east-west corridor--and international aviation must contend with major disruption and considerable added flight time and operational expense to route around the blanked-out areas. According to the Flightradar24 tracking service, the week before the Ryanair force-down, 3,300 flights transited through Belarus airspace, only one-fifth of which landed at or departed from the country’s airports.

Managing Re-Routing Around Contested Airspace

The agency vested with sorting all of this out is Brussels-based Eurocontrol, which stitches together the air navigation service providers (ANSPs) of its 41 member states and two associates (excluding Belarus) and manages flow control across the Continent. (See “Eurocontrol, Business Aviation & More, Parts 1 and Part 2,” BCA, October and November 2019). When the EU and U.K. requested based airlines to avoid Belarus airspace, it fell on Eurocontrol’s Network Manager to coordinate the rerouting of international flights in progress around the designated no-fly areas. One can imagine what a stressful exercise that must have been for Network Manager controllers and their counterparts in the ANSPs of member states. Eurocontrol has contingency plans for this sort of thing--frequent disrupters in recent years being volcanic eruptions in Iceland that have sent destructive ash clouds across the North Atlantic and Europe, and war-related activity in the Middle East--and the agency is constantly analyzing its performance after implementing the plans in response to airspace closure incidents and updating them.

In addition to its role in overseeing flow control over Western Europe, Eurocontrol is also a research center and resource for air traffic management and related disciplines and, as such, is a treasure trove of data on operations over the Continent. For example, a Eurocontrol update document supplied to BCA states that “approximately 400 flights a day use Belarus airspace” including that portion that does not transit airspace of Eurocontrol member states. Overflights number 300/day, approximately 100 of which represent EU or U.K. carriers, and 100 flights originate or end (i.e., are destination flights) in Belarus, of which 14 are flown by EU or U.K. airlines. 

And just as an interesting factoid, in 2019, Eurocontrol collected €85 million in navigation fees on behalf of Belarus, a level the rogue nation almost certainly will not equal this year thanks to the overflight and destination airspace restrictions imposed by the international community and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Operators (including business aviation) avoiding Belarus airspace, “may well have an additional time and fuel cost, depending on the route. Longer haul routes will generally be less affected,” states Eurocontrol in a briefing document. Furthermore, “The most efficient routes for the majority of [operators] will be to reroute through the Baltic states [of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia]. The Eurocontrol Network Manager is already working closely with the air navigation service providers of neighboring and other affected countries to make sure that these changes in traffic flows can be managed in a safe manner…avoiding delays as much as possible.”

While “in the normal course of events,” individual countries retain the responsibility for determining whether airspace is safe and can close it at their discretion, if a decision is made to restrict access to specific airspace within the Network Manager’s purview, Eurocontrol’s mandate is to inform operators of the closure, usually via NOTAM, and if the state requests, reject flight plans into or through the affected airspace. (The European Union Aviation Safety Agency [EASA] may likewise issue guidance in the form of Safety Information Bulletins.)

Editor's note: Subsequent articles will look at international law for this topic and how to handle a similar situation for business aviation operations.