E.U. and Britain Move to Impede Belarus’s Access to Air Travel

The European Union told airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace after the country forced a commercial flight to land in order to arrest a journalist.


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The brazen decision by Belarus’s president this weekend to force a commercial flight to land in order to arrest a dissident journalist shows how abruptly aviation can become entangled in geopolitics, sometimes with dangerous potential consequences.

Fallout from the episode was swift. A day after dispatching a fighter jet to ground the Ryanair flight, the country’s strongman president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, drew reprimands and flight bans from countries and airlines around the world.

The European Union on Monday called on airlines based in the bloc to stop flying over Belarus as it also worked to ban the country’s airlines from flying over E.U. airspace. Britain imposed similar restrictions, while several major airlines said they would stop traversing the country altogether.

“Due to the current dynamic situation, we are suspending the operation in Belarusian airspace for the time being,” Tal Muscal, a spokesman for Lufthansa, said in a statement. The German airline was joined by its sister carrier Austrian Airlines in stopping flights over Belarus. Both are among the top airlines connecting the country to others, according to Cirium, an aviation data provider.

Some analysts say the moves to isolate Belarus will be difficult and expensive for European companies. Airlines are already avoiding Ukraine, the country’s southern neighbor, because of conflict with Russia, and putting Belarusian airspace off limits presents complications on some flights.

Avoiding Belarus in north-south flights is feasible, analysts from Eurasia Group, a research and consulting firm, wrote in a note on Monday. But skirting the country while flying between Europe and Asia would prove costly, they said before the European Union’s announcement.

Last week, about 3,300 flights flew over Belarus, only about a fifth of which landed in or departed from the country, according to Flightradar24, a tracking service.

Though not a major European hub, Belarus’s capital, Minsk, is served by several international airlines, including Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines and Turkish Airlines. U.S. airlines like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines offer flights to Minsk through partnerships with European carriers and Belavia, the Belarusian airline.

In addition to seeking limits on flights, European officials called for the immediate release of the journalist, Roman Protasevich, who was detained on Sunday with his partner, Sofia Sapega. His arrest was aggressive even for Mr. Lukashenko, who claimed an improbably large victory in an election last year and was already subject to European Union sanctions.

Airlines are often forced to adjust operations in response to major disruptions, geopolitical and otherwise. This month, for example, several U.S. airlines canceled flights to and from Israel as a conflict there escalated. Some carriers also adjusted procedures, including adding fueling stops, after the hacking of a fuel pipeline company that serves airports on the East Coast of the United States.

In 2014, nearly 300 people were killed when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, where hostilities were raging, on its way to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam. Western governments blamed the Russian government and Russian-backed rebels fighting the Ukrainian government, while Moscow denied involvement. The Netherlands sued Russia in the European Court of Human Rights last year in an effort to secure evidence that would be useful to families of the victims.

From 2017 until this year, Qatar Airways was forced to avoid airspace over Saudi Arabia and several neighboring countries after they imposed an air, land and sea embargo against Qatar. In some cases, that meant flying longer routes around the Arabian Peninsula. The neighbors accused Qatar of supporting terrorism. Qatar has denied those accusations.

The movement to isolate Belarus will have little effect on U.S. passenger airlines, which rarely fly over the country, according to Flightradar24. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken condemned the forced landing of the Ryanair flight, calling it a “shocking act” that “endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens.” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the safety of U.S. flights over Belarus should be assessed.

But cargo carriers could be affected. On Sunday, for example, more than a dozen flights operated by U.S. airlines flew over Belarus, according to Flightradar24, including five by FedEx, four by UPS and two by Atlas Air.

In a statement, UPS said that its network remained unaffected, but that it was “evaluating other flight route options that will provide for the safety of our crews and aircraft, as well as maintain service for our customers” in case it had to make changes. FedEx said it was “closely monitoring the issue.”

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations and the European Cockpit Association said in a statement that aviation authorities should investigate what had happened and “take swift measures” to prevent similar disruptions. They described Sunday’s episode as a “hazard to the safety of passengers and crew.”

Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, on Monday condemned the actions of the Belarusian authorities, who ordered the plane, flying from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, to land in Minsk.

“This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking, state-sponsored piracy,” Mr. O’Leary told interviewers on Newstalk, an Irish radio broadcaster.

The airline doesn’t fly much over Belarus, he said, adding that it would be “a very minor adjustment” to move routes over Poland instead. Ryanair, a discount Irish airline, describes itself as Europe’s largest airline group.

Even before the European Union’s announcement on Monday, AirBaltic, the Latvian national airline, and Wizz Air in Hungary said they would avoid flying over Belarus.

Kate Kelly contributed reporting.

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