The outspoken chief executive of Qatar Airways claims the pilot of a Ryanair plane that was the victim of a ‘state-sponsored hijacking‘ in which a Belarusian MiG29 fighter jet forced it to land in Minsk made a “fundamental error” by not continuing on to Vilnius, Lithuania where a dissident Belarusian journalist could not have been seized by agents working for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
The often controversial figurehead of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker also claimed the ‘hijacking’ incident had created a dangerous precedent in which rogue states could arrest their enemies by downing commercial planes whenever they fly through their airspace.
“This is something that should never have happened,” Al Baker told Bloomberg. “This will create a precedent for other countries to do the same when there is someone on a plane that they want.”
“Secondly, I think the pilot (of Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius) made a fundamental error by not continuing to Vilnius because that was a closer airport than Minsk. However, from what I understand, there was some kind of communications from air traffic controllers that made him go to Minsk”.
In a transcript of the communications between the pilot and Minsk air traffic controllers released by the Belarusian regime shortly after last weeks incident, the Ryanair pilot repeatedly questions the need to divert to Minsk before eventually agreeing to the recommendation proposed by air traffic control.
Once on the ground, security forces arrested the journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich who was a passenger on the plane and who has been wanted as a terrorist in Belarus. European leaders have demanded Pratasevich’s immediate release.
In response to the incident, the European Commission told airlines based in its member states to avoid flying through Belarusian air space. The United Kingdom also issued a similar order, while the United States said passenger airlines should exercise “extreme caution” flying over Belarus.
United Airlines, which is the only U.S. airline to occasionally flying over Belarus, said it would immediately reroute any flights around the country. Singapore Airlines has also voluntarily decided to avoid Belarusian airspace.
Al Baker, however, said Qatar Airways would not be deterred from flying over Belarus.
“As far as we are concerned, for us business as usual. If we feel we need to overfly Minsk to reach our destination, we will because we don’t like to bring our business, airline business, and mix it with politics”.
Al Baker used his position as Qatar Airways chief executive to decry what he described as an “illegal” blockade of Qatar by a Saudi-led bloc which included Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
He also threatened to quit the Oneworld airline alliance because of a political campaign led by American Airlines. More recently, Qatar Airways suggested it could stop flights to Australia because of a dispute over the number of takeoff and landing slots awarded to the airline.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently used by some of the biggest names in journalism.