The U.S. State Department has suspended the 2019 U.S.-Belarus bilateral air services agreement in the aftermath of that country hijacking a Ryanair flight last month to detain a dissident journalist, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. But the speed with which governments have moved to sanction Belarus, although applauded by free-press and human-rights activists, has raised concerns about the politicization of air traffic control and air transport.
This could lead to a tit-for-tat that ultimately may compromise air safety, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said. “Two wrongs do not make a right,” IATA Director General Willie Walsh said. “Politics should never interfere with the safe operation of aircraft and politicians should never use aviation safety as a cover to pursue political or diplomatic agendas.”
Signs that the incident could devolve into escalating and reciprocal government actions — with airlines caught in the crossfire — are already emerging. In response to Western outrage, Russia briefly rejected European airlines’ flight plans that skirted Belarus en route to Moscow, but reversed that decision last week. Germany this week barred flights from Russia to land in Germany before allowing them to resume on Thursday. This was in response to a corresponding ban from Russia, which also was reversed.
The U.S. also moved quickly by suspending the bilateral air services agreement that had allowed unlimited flights between the U.S. and Belarus and points beyond by passenger and cargo carriers from either country. Both countries have the right to suspend the agreement if its terms or international laws are violated. “We take these measures, together with our partners and allies, to hold the regime accountable for its actions and to demonstrate our commitment to the aspirations of the people of Belarus,” Psaki told reporters.
Although IATA condemned Belarus’ May 23 hijacking of a Ryanair flight in the strongest terms, the group warned that air safety should be kept out of geopolitics. “Banning European aircraft from using Belarusian airspace with a Safety Directive is also a politicization of aviation safety,” Walsh said. “This is a retrograde and disappointing development. EASA should rescind its prohibition and allow airlines to manage safety as they do each and every day — with their normal operational risk assessments.”
The European Union and the UK moved quickly after the May 23 incident to prohibit Belarusian carrier Belavia from flying through European airspace and landing in either jurisdiction. European airlines have been ordered not to overfly Belarus. The UK has formally suspended Belavia’s air operators certificate, and the EU is expected to do the same. The EU and the U.S. are expected to levy further sanctions on Belarus in the coming days.
Ryanair flight 4978 was en route between Greece and Lithuania — both EU member states — on May 23 when Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the aircraft to Minsk on the false ruse that Belarus had intelligence that a bomb was on board the flight. Upon landing, authorities arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his companion. Protasevich lived in exile in Lithuania. The incident sparked a diplomatic row, with several European leaders decrying it as tantamount to state-sponsored hijacking of a commercial flight.
Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed Western concerns, arguing the matter is an internal affair for Belarus. Russia’s carriers have increased the number of weekly flights to Belarus, and Putin’s regime has lent Belarus $500 million.