August 5, 2021

Airlines are avoiding Belarus after ‘state-sponsored hijacking’ of Ryanair flight

Some international airlines have started to avoid Belarus air space after a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in the country, and a dissident journalist on board was arrested.

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) said in a statement on Monday that it will reroute its twice weekly flights between Oslo and Kiev, the capitals of Norway and Ukraine, in line with instructions from the Swedish Transport Agency. “Safety is always our highest priority. We follow the development closely and are in close contact with Scandinavian and European aviation authorities and follow their instructions,” SAS added. Earlier on Monday, Latvia’s flag carrier AirBaltic said it had “decided to avoid entering Belarus airspace until the situation becomes clearer or a decision is issued by the authorities.”

Cyprus-registered Avia Solutions Group also said its airlines based in the Baltic region will not be using Belarusian airspace and low-cost Hungarian carrier Wizz Air (WZZAF) said it had rerouted a flight between Ukraine and Estonia on Monday, adding in a statement: “We are continuously monitoring and evaluating the situation.” Carriers and aviation authorities are concerned about safety after Ryanair (RYAAY) flight 4978 was ordered to divert to Minsk by Belarusian air traffic control on Sunday over a supposed security alert. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary on Monday accused Belarus of “state-sponsored hijacking, state-sponsored piracy.” UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Twitter that he has instructed the UK Civil Aviation Authority to request airlines “avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe.” He said that he has also suspended Belarus’ flag carrier Belavia’s operating permit.

The Ryanair flight was about to begin its descent to Vilnius in Lithuania when it suddenly changed direction, turning sharply east and descending towards the Belarusian capital. One of the passengers on the aircraft was Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Roman Pratasevich, who was arrested as soon as the plane landed, according to the Belarus Interior Ministry. “It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion,” O’Leary told Ireland radio station Newstalk. He said Belarusian secret security agents were also on board the flight, which had taken off from Athens. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Monday that the US government was assessing whether American airlines were safe flying over Belarus airspace. “We, both in terms of the international bodies we’re part of and as an administration with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] are looking at that,” he told CNN’s John Berman.