Latvian airline airBaltic confirmed today that, until further notice, all of its flights would be avoiding Belarus airspace. The airline announced the move with a statement to its Twitter account. The decision has come just one day after Belarus officials forced a Ryanair flight to divert.
In the statement, airBaltic said it would continue diverting planes until “the situation becomes clearer or a decision is issued by the authorities.” The airBaltic flights affected by the decision are BT410 from Riga to Odesa, Ukraine, and flight BT724 from Riga to Tbilisi, Georgia.
What is happening in Belarus?
airBaltic’s decision directly results from a precautionary warning from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Yesterday, EASA issued a recommendation for commercial aircraft to avoid the airspace above and around Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
The reason for the warning is a condemnation of Belarus’s decision to intercept and divert a Ryanair flight yesterday. Belarusian authorities scrambled and deployed a MIG-29 fighter jet to escort a commercial Ryanair flight headed from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, to the ground in Minsk. Reportedly, the authorities believed the flight was a bomb threat.
However, it has since been suggested that it was a political move to detain and arrest a journalist on the flight known for speaking out against the Belarusian president. Supposedly, the order to intercept the Ryanair flight came directly from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
A global reaction
airBaltic has become the first airline to declare plans to avoid Belarus, but chances are, it won’t be the last. There has been an outcry from many in the industry, saying that unless Belarus can ensure a safe fly zone, it should be avoided by all airlines. airBaltic confirmed that “the safety and health of our passengers and employees is the main priority for the airline.”
Other senior officials from European countries have also called for Belarus to ensure that all passengers and crew members can pass above the country safely. In a joint statement on Twitter, officials from the US, the UK, Poland, Lithuania, Ireland, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, and the Czech Republic called the interception an “act of piracy.” The chairman of foreign affairs in the UK, Tom Tugendhat, is calling for all UK airlines to cease commercial operations over Belarus airspace.
Today I joined my friends the chairs of their Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committees in condemning the state terror of Belarus. We’re calling for action. @PavelFischer @markomihkelson @n_roettgen @CharlieFlanagan @RihardsKols @ZygisPavilionis @BogdanKlich @SenatorMenendez pic.twitter.com/zLexNGInpU
— Tom Tugendhat (@TomTugendhat) May 23, 2021
If the airspace over Belarus is declared too dangerous, commercial operations will have to adapt. It isn’t unusual for the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to adapt airspace rules. And there are plenty of countries where commercial airlines do not fly, choosing instead to go the long way around.
Major global airspace concerns include Libya, Ukraine, North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Qatar, and Yemen. Some countries’ airspace is also used politically as a bargaining chip against specific countries. The most well-known of these is Israel’s El Al airline having to make diversions.
Going the long way round a country instead of directly across it is more expensive as it uses more fuel. It also takes much longer. As Belarus is fairly small, diversions for commercial airlines are likely to be more of a headache than completely crippling. Either way, it will be interesting to see if more airlines follow airBaltic’s example and avoid Belarus air space.
What do you think of the situation? Should more airlines avoid Belarus? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.