The organisation that represents the vast majority of airlines around the world has urged the European Union not to drag the aviation industry into a political dispute with Belarus over the “state-sponsored hijacking” of a Ryanair plane on May 23.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has objected to a new safety directive from Europe’s air safety agency that compels European airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace. The safety directive replaces an advisory bulletin which warned airlines to “carefully assess the risk of flying in Belarus airspace”.
Many airlines had interpreted the bulletin as a ban by proxy and had already stopped flying over Belarus. Some airlines had, however, continued to use Belarusian airspace because they were satisfied that despite the “hijack” incident, the safety of their aircraft, passengers and crew weren’t compromised.
The chief executive of Eastern European low-cost carrier Wizz Air has criticised the advisory saying it made aviation “a toy of politics”. Jozsef Varadi insisted that the false bomb threat made against Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius, along with the interception of the flight by a MiG29 fighter jet had not compromised flight safety.
“Aviation safety must never be politicized,” said Willie Walsh, director general of IATA on Friday. “Banning European aircraft from using Belarusian airspace with a Safety Directive is also a politicization of aviation safety.”
“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,” Walsh continued.
Keen to be seen to be taking a tough stance against Belarus over the incident, the European Commission will ban Belarus-based airlines from entering European airspace. The measures are part of a wider set of sanctions designed to exert pressure on the Belarusian regime.
Walsh, however, has warned Europe to leave airlines out of the politics. “Two wrongs do not make a right,” Walsh commented. “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.”
In the hours following the “hijack”, Ryanair initially avoided commented on the political aspect of the incident but faced a barrage of criticism for what appeared to be a lack of concern over the fact that one of its passengers had been kidnapped by an foreign government.
The next day, Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary described the incident as “an act of aviation piracy” and “a case of state-sponsored hijacking”.
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 relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.