Belarus forced diversion of Ryanair flight ‘state-sponsored hijacking’ say pilots

Flight crew organisations say incident will ‘upend assumptions about the safest response to bomb threats’

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 24 May 2021 16:04 BST
Starting gate: Ryanair Boeing 737 at Athens airport (file photo)
Starting gate: Ryanair Boeing 737 at Athens airport (file photo) (Simon Calder)

Pilots’ organisations around the world say the forced diversion of a Ryanair flight to Minsk bears “all the hallmarks of state-sponsored hijacking”.

The Boeing 737 flying from Athens to Vilnius was ordered to land at Minsk on Sunday afternoon so that a Belarusian dissident who was onboard could be arrested.

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations and the European Cockpit Association issued a joint statement saying: “This unprecedented act of unlawful interference will potentially upend all the assumptions about the safest response to bomb threats on flight and interceptions.”

The long-standing principle is that the captain has the best overview of the  situation onboard and that he or she should be able to decide the appropriate action to take.

In the case of Ryanair flight 4978, a swift landing would have been best achieved by continuing 60 miles to Vilnius. But the pilots were ordered by air-traffic controllers in Belarus to proceed to Minsk, 100 miles away, accompanied by a Mig 29 fighter.

The pilots say the: “The pilot-in-command must be able to react according to the level of risk, regardless of external circumstances.

“Without trust and reliable information from states and air navigation service providers, handling both types of events becomes much riskier to manage.

The intervention of the Belarussian Air Force was enacted for political reasons, in contravention of the Chicago Convention, and amounts to an act of unlawful interference.”

The pilots’ groups have called for an “immediate response by safety and security authorities”.

A Belarus foreign ministry spokesperson, Anatoly Glaz, said: “The rules of aviation security are an absolute priority.

“There is no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities were also in full compliance with the established international rules.”

Civil aviation is governed by the Chicago Convention, which was originally signed in 1944 with the aim of developing civil aviation “in a safe and orderly manner”.

It states: “Every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory.”

But it adds: “In case of interception, the lives of persons onboard and the safety of aircraft must not be endangered.”

In signing the convention, Belarus agreed “to provide such measures of assistance to aircraft in distress in its territory as it may find practicable”.

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