what the Belarus incident means for air transport.
A Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday took a sudden turn towards the end of its trip and looped back to Minsk, Belarus, after being warned of a security threat . Belarusian authorities have argued without merit that the redirection was necessary due to a bomb threat on board. This justification did not make sense, given that Minsk was further away, but Belarus still sent a fighter plane to guide the plane to the country’s capital. As it turned out, the real reason the flight was rerouted was that it was carrying Roman Protasevich, a dissident Belarusian journalist, who was quickly arrested when the plane landed. The international community described the incident as a state-funded hijacking, and the European Union pledged the country would face economic sanctions.
The next day, the EU asked its airlines to tour the country and its member countries to revoke the permits of the Belarusian national airline. Some European and Asian airlines have already pledged not to fly over Belarus. To get a feel for what this situation means for international air travel, Slate spoke to Ian Petchenik, communications director for the Flightradar24 flight tracking website, on Monday. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Molly Olmstead: How’s your day going? I imagine it has been a busy time for those who are plugged into the airline industry.
Ian Petchenik: It was a day. You know, the kind of extremely serious international incident day with civil aviation.
What did you think when you heard about the measures taken by the EU? Call on EU-based airlines to stop flying over Belarus, but also try to somehow start the process of banning Belarusian airlines from flying over EU airspace?
Hijacking an international flight that intentionally flies over your airspace for any reason is a serious act. And it doesn’t even appear to be with a make-believe polish. This is something that has repercussions around the world. And if they did not respond, other states might see this as a possible method. And I think that’s definitely something the international community doesn’t want to happen.
How much of a problem is this?
It’s a big problem. There are very specific conventions in international law that relate to the operation of international air traffic. And it’s really one of those things where it’s very clear that you’re not supposed to be doing it. It could have ended so badly, beyond the current situation, which ended terribly. What if this pilot misinterprets what the Ryanair plane is doing? What if they can’t communicate clearly? There are so many things that could have gone wrong from 39,000 feet, when they met.
Then, on top of all that, what happens now, in a real situation, where maybe there is a bomb on a plane? Does the pilot believe the air traffic controller transmitting this message? If all of a sudden there are fighter jets escorting the plane, is there a second thought? One of the rules is that if a fighter plane lands on your wing you have to listen to it because if you are threatened it has your safety in mind. So now am I guessing all of this? Question if this is false information about an emergency?
The precedent that this set is terrible and hopefully the reaction to it is informed by it all.
In the aviation industry, was the EU expected to do what it did?
Consensus has gathered around EU action. This seems to be an expected step, and proportional. And that’s something they can do fairly quickly: issue an airworthiness directive. I think most airlines, given recent history, will mitigate risk on their own as much as possible, especially when it comes to passenger airlines.
So it’s no surprise that airlines are talking about avoiding this airspace?
No, I think that’s the safest course of action, as far as an airline is concerned. I mean, aviation is all about safety and risk mitigation. If you can be safer by traveling elsewhere, the airlines definitely will.
What do you think this means for the industry?
In the long run, your current estimate is as good as mine. The immediate effect is that airlines are sending planes on less efficient routes to get to their destinations. They use more fuel, spend more time in the air, and it costs more. Around 2,600 flights per week pass through Belarus. That’s about 75,000 commercial flights a day at this stage of the pandemic. So we’re not talking about huge numbers. It’s not a huge effect on commercial aviation. This has a greater impact on the environment. But when it comes to the hijacking, the action itself has a huge effect on commercial aviation.
And then the question becomes, for Belarus, what is the connectivity between the rest of the world? Where can their airliners fly? How does this affect their position in the world? But also how to bring things into the country? If you import air freight, where does that air freight come from, if it does not come from elsewhere in Europe?
How much would that change or lengthen passenger journeys?
Probably no more than an hour to 90 minutes in the worst case. Belarus is not a big country, and airlines certainly did not spend a lot of time in their airspace initially. A north-south trip takes longer. So the rerouted Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius – it takes a bit longer than airlines traveling, for example, from Germany, Poland or the Netherlands to destinations in Southeast Asia. South East.
What do you think it would take for airlines to feel safe flying over this airspace?
As for the passenger lines, I don’t know. I mean, looking at the map, it’s a little boring, but it’s not like flying from San Francisco to New York and having to avoid all the other parts of the U.S. It’s definitely not great at regards fuel consumption and environmental concerns, but it’s not a critical passage for flights.
What else do you want people who may not be really familiar with the airline industry to understand all of this?
There have been criticisms against the Ryanair crew. Their job is to get everyone safely to the field. So the second guess, I would have just kept on flying to Lithuania or something like that isn’t really a line of reasoning I would say, because the crew is trained to respond to what they believe is a legitimate threat to the aircraft with standard procedures and protocols. In this specific case, it was not legitimate. And that brings us back to the precedent that it sets. Or, hopefully, no.
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