Belarus air incident triggers political crisis

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Global aviation faces its biggest political crisis in years after Belarus scrambled a fighter and flagged a false bomb alert to detain a dissident journalist, prompting US and European outrage.

Some European airlines immediately avoided Belarus airspace, a key corridor between western Europe and Moscow and long-haul flight route between western Europe and Asia.

“We, like all the European airlines are looking for guidance from the European authorities and NATO,” Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary told Ireland’s Newstalk radio.

Others, including Chinese and Turkish carriers, continue to overfly Belarus, which charges euro-denominated fees for use of its airspace. Each flight brings Minsk revenue equivalent to some $500, adding up to millions each year, a Belarus official said.

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

Aviation experts said a decades-old system of co-operation now faces a test under the glare of East-West tensions.

The UN International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) said the incident may have contravened a core aviation treaty: part of the international order created after World War Two.

“ICAO is concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention,” it said.

The Montreal agency called a meeting of its 36-member council, which has power to investigate situations hindering development of international aviation.

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

Experts cautioned calls from Western politicians for outright closure of Belarus airspace would meet tough obstacles.

Under global rules, neither ICAO or any nation can close another’s airspace, but some, such as the US, can tell their own airlines not to fly there.

NO REGULATOR

Global airlines condemned unlawful interference.

“A full investigation by competent international authorities is needed,” said the International Air Transport Association (IATA), representing about 280 airlines. Ryanair is not a member.

It was not immediately clear how any probe would be organised.

Although highly regulated at a national level and supported by harmonised rules to keep skies safe, aviation lacks a global policeman to avoid disputes over sovereignty.

While it has no regulatory power, ICAO is at the centre of a safety and security standards system operating across political barriers but needing an often slow-moving consensus.

Rules are managed through the Montreal-based agency by its 193 members, including Belarus.

ICAO was thrown into discord over a wave of hijackings in the 1980s. Back then, the issue was whether to oblige countries to agree to let hijacked aircraft land on their soil.

Humphreys said it would be the first time in memory ICAO has had to ponder accusations one of its member countries carried out what Ryanair’s O’Leary called “state-sponsored hijacking”.

Belarus insisted the alert was not a hoax and said controllers issued “recommendations” to Ryanair pilots.

Russia accused the West of hypocrisy, citing the Bolivian presidential plane forced to land in Austria in 2013 or a Belarus jetliner ordered to land in Ukraine three years later.

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

Aviation experts said freedoms extended to civil airliners do not apply to presidential or state aircraft, which need special permission to enter another country’s airspace.

In the 2016 incident, Belarus national carrier Belavia demanded compensation from Ukraine.

Lawyers say any probe or legal claim would have to plough through a tangle of jurisdictions typical of liberalised air travel: a Polish-registered jet flown by an Irish group between EU nations Greece and Lithuania, over non-EU Belarus.

Under the 1944 Chicago Convention, each country has sovereignty over own airspace, though the treaty prohibits use of civil aviation that may endanger safety.

The right to overfly other countries is in a side treaty called the International Air Services Transit Agreement, of which Belarus is not a member.

A separate 1971 treaty that includes Belarus outlaws seizure of aircraft or knowingly communicating false information in a way that endangers aircraft safety.