European airlines swerve around Belarusian airspace – POLITICO



The skies over Belarus were quiet on Monday as a host of airlines avoided the country’s airspace after its authoritarian government forced a Ryanair flight to land on Sunday and snatched an opposition blogger and his girlfriend.

Wizz Air, Austrian Airlines and Air Baltic all rerouted flights to dodge Belarusian airspace. 

The Lithuanian government closed its airports to flights from Belarus, and urged its citizens to leave the country.

“To ensure the safety of Lithuanian citizens, air carriers flying to/from Lithuania will have to reroute their flights to avoid the airspace of Belarus,” said a government statement, which estimated it would affect about 26 flights a day.

U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority to request that carriers avoid Belarus airspace and suspended the operating permit for Belavia, the Belarusian state airline, he wrote on social media.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Monday ended flights between Kyiv and Minsk and banned the flight of Ukrainian-registered aircraft over Belarus.

The Ryanair incident will be discussed by EU leaders on Monday, and there’s growing pressure on the bloc to retaliate.

A senior EU official said the leaders hope to block Belavia from flying to EU countries, either by a Council decision or, if that takes too long, through coordinated individual national action. Once accomplished, they expect Belarus to retaliate against European carriers, so there is an expectation of widespread disruption of air travel to Belarus.

Belarus is a marginal air market for EU countries, with Poland’s Lot and Germany’s Lufthansa among the few to fly regular services to Minsk. Lufthansa said Monday evening it will stop operations in Belarusian airspace. Most flights to Belarus are offered by Belavia. However, Belarus is also an important area for overflights, especially after flights were suspended over eastern Ukraine after Russian-backed separatists shot down a Malaysia Airlines airplane in 2014, killing 298 people.

Europe’s airspace managers Eurocontrol said in an emailed statement that in the week ending May 19, there were approximately 2,500 flights overflying Belarus or having an origin or a destination in the country — of which 419 were operated by Belavia.

“The Network Manager is working with airlines and air navigation service providers in countries neighbouring Belarus to ensure sufficient capacity is available to ensure that airlines can avoid Belarus airspace if they wish to do so,” the agency said.

That’s forcing airlines to deviate from the straight lines that make for cheaper and faster flights — the kind of route that Ryanair Flight FR4978 was following on Sunday as it flew from Athens to Vilnius.

Wizz Air rerouted a flight on Monday from Kyiv to Tallinn, while Air Baltic twice opted to avoid Belarusian airspace on Sunday on flights from Riga to Odessa in Ukraine and Tbilisi in Georgia.

The Latvian airline said in an emailed statement that it was following a recommendation from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) “as a precautionary measure to exercise caution when operating within or over Minsk.’

EASA spokesperson Janet Northcote said the agency is “monitoring the situation” and had contacted national aviation authorities to “raise awareness of the situation.”

“The national authorities were recommended to pass this information on to their airlines, for inclusion in each airline’s own risk assessment process,” she said.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said his airline would take guidance from European authorities over whether carriers should be banned from flying over Belarus, but said his airline doesn’t fly often over the country and would require a “very minor adjustment” to fly over Poland instead. 

Another airline that diverted a flight, Austrian Airlines, said it had done so as the security situation at the time “was still to be assessed.” But it said it had decided to use Belarusian airspace again after “thorough security assessments” with its parent company, Lufthansa Group.

The situation still isn’t normal in Minsk. On Monday, a Lufthansa flight from the Belarusian capital to Frankfurt was delayed after authorities said they had received a report of a possible terrorist act.

The Belarusian transport ministry on Monday blamed the decision to call on the Ryanair plane to land in Minsk on Hamas, the Middle Eastern militant organization. Apparently, Hamas sent an email to Minsk threatening to detonate a bomb aboard the plane if its demands for a ceasefire with Israel were not met. Minsk was not a destination of the Ryanair flight, and Israel and Hamas agreed on a ceasefire last week.

David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.

This article has been updated with Lufthansa halting operations over Belarus.

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