MS Risk Blog

Western Europe’s Response to the Belarus Flight Diversion

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On May 23, Flight FRA4978 was approaching its final destination of Vilnius, Lithuania when it was forced to divert to Minsk, Belarus. The plane was accompanied by a MiG-29 fighter jet that guided the plane into the Belarusian capital. Soon after its arrival, a passenger, Roman Protasevich, was arrested. The 26-year-old journalist was the editor of the opposition channel on the Telegram messaging app called Nexta. He left that position to live in exile in Lithuania, where he covered the events of the 2020 Belarus presidential election, after which he was charged with terrorism and inciting riots. Belarus has said that the plane was diverted because a bomb threat onboard and claims the threat came from Switzerland. However, no bomb was found on the flight and the Swiss foreign ministry says it has no knowledge of a bomb threat issued from Switzerland. The incident has promoted a reaction from several western European governments who responded without delay or hesitation.

The fallout from the diversion has propelled Belarus to the front pages for the first time since the mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko that took place in 2020 throughout the summer and fall. The EU has responded swiftly, announcing a new package of sanctions targeting state enterprises, those in Lukashenko’s inner circle, and Belarus’ state airline. Most of western Europe’s airlines have also been suspended flights entering Belarusian airspace.

This caused other implications, with Russia- an ally of Belarus, taking several days to grant Air France and Austrian Airlines flights to Moscow the clearance to use Russian airspace to divert around Belarus, resulting in cancelations. Along with the EU, the UK has told flights to avoid Belarusian airspace and UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has suspended the operating permit of the Belarus’ state airline, Belavia, effectively banning it from the UK. The current situation is seeing cancelations and delays. If the situation escalates further passengers and airlines could see flight times increased, a rise in fares, higher operation costs, and longer haul, nonstop flights needing to make re-fueling stops along the way. Cases of what can become more likely have already occurred. On the day of the incident, the ban on Belarusian airspace had already taken place when a British Airways flight from London to Islamabad was already in transit, causing it to divert to Moscow to refuel, before continuing.

Normally, this is not an ideal situation for the airline and travel industries but is even more inconvenient as airlines in Europe hope to have a busy summer season following the 15-month significant decrease in travel due to coronavirus restrictions. The events have caused the aviation map of Europe to be adjusted with mild challenges and if the situation increases the challenge of drawing a new map will be tough. One road to avoid Belarus airspace would be to fly over the Ukraine however there are already restrictions on flying over Ukraine, after Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down in 2014. For the UK, an option would be to fly over Crimea, but no British operator has flown over Crimea for quite some time. Belarus has seen an increase in traffic as flights have been going around Ukraine since 2014. Now as flights avoid Belarus, Latavia and Lithuania are likely to see an increase in air travel.

The United Kingdom, Spain, France, and Belgium are just a few of the western European countries that have banned the Belarusian airline, Belavia. The airline has had to cancel flights to 22 destinations until at least the end of the summer. It is unclear when the conflict will lessen but the Belarusian government is standing firm in their actions and the EU is standing firm in their response. Airlines are often forced to adjust operations in response to major geopolitical disruptions. For example, several U.S. airlines canceled flights to and from Israel as conflict with Palestine increased and some airlines needed to add fueling stops after the hacking of a fuel pipeline that serves airports on the East Coast of the United States. The brazen decision by President Lukashenko to force a commercial flight to land in order to arrest a journalist has showed how quickly aviation can become entangled in geopolitics.