The diversion of Ryanair Flight 4978 by Belarusian air traffic control on apparently false grounds led to a bomb threat last month. Extraordinarily fast response from the international community.
Airlines were advised not to fly over Belarus, the national carrier was banned from the airspace of the European Union, and sanctions were put in place for the Belarusian elite.
It is widely believed that Belarus created a bomb threat to arrest a political opponent. This may not be the first time that a country has had to land an aircraft for political purposes. But this is the first time many in the industry remember that civilian air traffic control has been used as a weapon – used by the state to pass a false message on to a commercial airliner to force it to land.
Now that the path has been shown, others may follow. So what can be done?
It may be assumed that Belarus has violated international aviation law. But, in fact, the first article of International Civil Aviation Convention الطيران, which sets the global framework for safe and effective civil aviation, states that: “Each State has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace over its territory.” This opening clause is a sine qua non for an international civil aviation regime.
However, it is also the biggest weakness in ensuring global aviation safety, as the incident with Ryanair demonstrated. “If a state decides there is good reason to require an aircraft to land, it can do so with impunity,” says Jim Bell, co-chair of the aviation division at law firm Watson Farley & Williams.
Belarus’ actions clearly go against the spirit of the agreement, and this precedent could have serious repercussions for the aviation industry. These bypass the need to avoid flying over Belarus, which will add cost in terms of fuel and emissions.
Pilots must be able to trust what they are told by observers. If they have to speculate on the motives behind what they are being asked to do – and in particular, in stressful situations such as the threat of a bomb – this will only add to already complicated procedures and threaten safety.
“This unprecedented act of unlawful interference is likely to overturn all assumptions about the safest response to bomb threats to flights and intercepts,” the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations said.
The difficulty is that there is no clear cure for this problem. The ideal solution would be to create an international system that is independently managed to provide air navigation service.
This may not have prevented Belarus from faking a bomb threat and passing it on to Flight 4978. But the usual procedure in the event of a bomb threat is to land at the nearest airport. The independent air navigation service provider had directed the plane to Vilnius, just 72 kilometers away when the pilot made the decision to land, instead of Minsk, 183 kilometers away. At the very least, the defected young man and his partner would remain free.
However, after decades of attempts, the EU is struggling to get member states to implement measures that fall short of this independent model. The One European Sky initiative About two decades ago to reduce the fragmentation of European airspace and to improve the performance of air traffic management. A few weeks ago, Willie Walsh, President of the Aviation Industry Trade Authority, IATA, warned that The initiative was on the verge of collapse due to “the stubbornness and selfishness of the main EU countries and their air navigation service providers”.
Most countries are not willing to give up their sovereign right to manage their airspace, even with great caveats to ensuring the military’s freedom to operate in situations of threat or conflict.
The European Union has acted cautiously in suppressing Belarus’ actions. But flight restrictions and potential penalties may not be enough to prevent others from taking this approach. It would be much better if the system itself was designed to make such actions more difficult.
Brussels is developing the scope of the European Union Foreign Aviation Policy, to replace bilateral agreements of member states with other countries. These EU agreements address safety, security and competition. Perhaps it could also be used as leverage in an effort to start reforming the way air navigation services operate globally.
But the European Union will first have to arrange its own hangar. As long as the member states stall on the “single European sky”, it will be difficult to argue that others should go further.