Two European airlines had to cancel flights to Moscow after the Russian authorities failed to approve new flight routes that avoided Belarusian airspace in response to the interception of a commercial EU flight by the Belarusian regime.
Air France and Austrian Airlines planned to reroute flights that would normally fly over Belarus after EU countries asked their airlines to avoid the country’s airspace after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko sent a military plane to reroute a Ryanair flight bound to Vilnius with an opposition activist.
Both airlines said the Russian aviation authorities did not approve the new routes, leading to the cancellation of a flight from Paris to Moscow on Wednesday and Vienna to Moscow on Thursday. An Air France flight to Russia on Friday was still awaiting permission to use a new route to avoid Belarus.
However, several other European airlines, including KLM and British Airways, have been allowed to land with new flight routes in Russia. The Kremlin did not comment on the incident and referred the investigation to the aviation authorities.
Aviation industry insiders have become concerned about the politicization of airspace after Belarusian authorities ordered Ryanair Flight 4978 from Athens to Vilnius, land in Minsk over an alleged bomb threat. Two of the 126 passengers, anti-Lukashenko activist Roman Protasevich and his Russian partner, were arrested shortly after the plane’s landing. Three other passengers stopped in Minsk.
However, the alleged bomb threat cited by Belarusian authorities was sent by email after the plane was diverted, according to email provider Proton Technologies. ‘We cannot access or verify the content of the message. But. . . we can confirm that the message in question was sent after the plane was diverted, ”the company said.
Ryanair has labeled the forced landing an act of ‘aviation piracy’, and the UK and the EU have urged their airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace, ban the state-owned airline from their airports and have vowed to impose new economic sanctions on the regime. The US has requested the immediate release of 26-year-old Protasevich and his partner.
Russia stood out for supporting Minsk and called the EU’s response “hysterical”. Putin and Lukashenko will meet in Russia on Friday.
Willie Walsh, head of the International Air Transport Association, has said it is “disturbing” to see a commercial flight diverted “for clearly false reasons.”
“I would like to think that this doesn’t set a precedent. It is important that we build on public and unanimous condemnation. . . to make sure we don’t see a repeat of this behavior, ” he told a media conference on Wednesday.
While avoiding Belarusian airspace adds mileage and fuel costs to some journeys east from Europe, airlines have complied. However, any problems with Russia would be more damaging given its magnitude.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN forum that sets standards for civil aviation around the world, will hold a meeting on the incident later on Thursday and has already said Belarus’s actions may have violated the Chicago Convention that regulates civil flying.
Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers held the first talks on punitive action against the Belarusian regime on Thursday, with the country’s lucrative potash sector high on the agenda.
The European bloc will focus “significantly” on the economic structures and financial transactions in Belarus, Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, told reporters ahead of the informal meeting in Lisbon.
“The hijacking of the plane and the detention of the two passengers is completely unacceptable, and we will begin to discuss the implementation of the sectoral and economic sanctions,” said Josep Borrell, head of EU foreign policy.
Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister, said potash – a crucial ingredient in fertilizers – was the ‘keyword’ as Belarus is one of the largest suppliers in the world.
“I think it would hurt Lukashenko a lot if we saved something in this area,” Asselborn said.
Member States aim to approve the new measures at a meeting of foreign ministers on June 21, diplomats say.
Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Moscow