Global aviation system tested by Belarusian jetliner diversion

© Reuters. A Ryanair plane carrying Belarusian opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich and diverted to Belarus, where he was arrested by authorities, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania on May 23, 2021. REUTERS / Andrius Sytas

By Tim Hepher and Conor Humphries

PARIS (Reuters) – Global aviation is facing its biggest political crisis in years after Belarus messed up a fighter and reported a false bomb alert to arrest a dissident journalist, causing outrage in the US and Europe.

Some European airlines immediately began avoiding Belarusian airspace, an important corridor between Western Europe and Moscow and a route for long-haul flights between Western Europe and Asia.

“We, like all European airlines, are seeking advice from the European authorities and NATO today,” Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary told Ireland’s Newstalk Radio.

Others, including Chinese and Turkish airlines, continued to fly over Belarus, which charges euro-denominated fees for the use of its airspace. Each flight brings Minsk around $ 500 in revenue, which adds up to millions each year, a Belarusian official said.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it had informed its 31 member states of the incident and an airline source said the agency had recommended “caution” towards Belarus.

Aviation experts said a decades-old system of collaboration was facing a crucial test in the face of east-west tensions.

The United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said the incident may have violated a core aviation treaty: part of the international order created after World War II.

“The ICAO is very concerned about the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which may violate the Chicago Convention,” she said on Sunday.

The Montreal Agency on Thursday convened a meeting of its 36-member council, which is empowered to investigate any situation that could hamper the development of international aviation.

“It looks like a gross abuse of the (Chicago) Convention. It’s piracy,” said Kevin Humphreys, a former Irish aviation regulator, of the incident in Belarus.

However, experts warned that some Western politicians’ calls for a complete closure of Belarusian airspace would face tough obstacles.

Under global rules, neither ICAO nor any nation can shut down someone else’s airspace, but some, like the United States, have the authority to tell their own airlines not to go there.

NO REGULATOR

Global airlines condemned any illegal interference.

“A full investigation by the relevant international authorities is needed,” said the International Air Transport Association, which represents about 280 airlines. Ryanair is not a member.

It wasn’t immediately clear how a probe would be organized.

Although aviation is heavily regulated at the national level and supported by harmonized rules to protect the sky, it lacks a global police officer to avoid constant disputes over sovereignty.

Although the ICAO has no regulatory powers, it is at the center of a system of security standards that works across political barriers, but which often requires a sluggish consensus.

The rules are administered by the Montreal-based agency of its 193 members, including Belarus.

The ICAO fell into conflict in the 1980s over a wave of kidnappings. At the time, the question was whether countries should be obliged to agree to allow hijacked planes to land on their ground.

Humphreys said it was the first time the agency had to ponder allegations that one of its own member countries carried out what Ryanair’s O’Leary called a “state sponsored kidnapping”.

Belarus insisted that the warning was not a joke, saying its air traffic controllers were only giving “recommendations” to Ryanair pilots.

Russia accused the West of hypocrisy, citing the case of a Bolivian presidential plane that had to land in Austria in 2013 or a Belarusian plane that was scheduled to land in Ukraine three years later.

In 2013, Bolivia said President Evo Morales’ plane was rerouted on suspicion that a former contractor for the US spy agency Edward Snowden, who was wanted by Washington for disclosing secret details of US surveillance activities, was on board.

However, aviation professionals said the civil airliner freedoms do not apply to presidential or state aircraft that require special permission to enter another country’s airspace.

In the 2016 incident, Belarusian national airline Belavia said it had requested compensation from Ukraine.

Lawyers say any investigation or legal claim would also have to plow through a tangle of jurisdictions typical of liberalized air travel: a jet registered in Poland that was flown by an Irish group between EU states Greece and Lithuania via non-EU Belarus becomes.

According to the Chicago Convention of 1944, each country has sovereignty over its own airspace, although the treaty prohibits any use of civil aviation that could endanger security.

However, the right to fly over other countries is contained in a subsidiary agreement called the International Air Services Transit Agreement, which Belarus does not belong to.

A separate treaty dated 1971, which includes Belarus, prohibits the seizure of aircraft or knowingly conveying false information in ways that endanger the safety of aircraft.

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