Airlines avoid Belarus airspace: How politics can change your flight path

Belarus is not a large presence on the world's air travel scene, but that changed on Sunday when the country's military authorities scrambled a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight bound for neighbouring Lithuania to land at its capital, Minsk.

Belarussian police boarded the aircraft and removed Roman Protasevich, a terrified young dissident and a prominent figure in the campaign to unseat Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus' authoritarian president.

Branding it an audacious act of political hijacking, the Western world was united in its outrage. The next evening after the kidnapping, European Union leaders met in Brussels and called on all EU-based airlines to avoid Belarus airspace. They also set in motion a ban to prevent Belarusian airlines from flying over EU airspace or landing at any airport within the EU. The UK has done the same.

It's happened before

Taking political figures off aircraft is not unknown. Australia did just that in 1954 when it removed Evdokia Petrov from a flight that would have taken her to Moscow. Her husband, Vladimir Petrov, was a KGB agent masquerading as a Canberra-based diplomat when he was persuaded to defect. Before she had time to do the same, Mrs Petrov was placed under house arrest in the Soviet Embassy in Canberra.

Two couriers were dispatched to bring her back to Moscow, they hustled her on board an aircraft in Sydney and when the aircraft made a refuelling stop in Darwin, ASIO agents pounced. Mrs Petrov was separated from her minders and after a phone call with her husband, asked for political asylum which was granted by the Menzies government.

In that case the boot was on the other foot. Mrs Petrov was being forcibly taken to Russia against her will. It was the Soviet authorities that were the kidnappers. Moscow stamped its boots in response but there was nothing the regime could do – and Menzies stormed to an unexpected election victory.

What are the broader effects for air travel?

Taking Belarus out of the global air travel network is not likely to present a major disruption to air routes. Belarus is slightly smaller than Victoria, and Belarusian airspace is not one of the world's major air corridors. Nor is the loss of Belarus from the world tourism scene going to cause too much heartache, but neither is the country stitched up by the EU flight bans. Anyone from Belarus who wants to fly into an EU country can still do that by flying via Moscow.

It's not uncommon for airlines to alter their routes in response to world events. Major world airlines are currently avoiding Ukrainian airspace, a hangover from July 2014, when a Russian missile crew shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Coincidentally, that also affects Russian Aeroflot flights between Moscow and Moldova, just south of Ukraine, which must make a long detour over Poland to avoid flying over Ukrainian airspace since Russia and Ukraine are currently engaged in a tense face-off. One exception is flights out of Minsk aboard Belavia, the Belarusian national airline, which regularly cross Ukraine.

Similarly, in 2017, when Qatar was on the nose with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Qatar Airways flights either departing or arriving at Doha from a westward direction were forced to avoid Saudi airspace. That affected the carrier's Europe flights in particular, requiring a circuitous detour over Iraq or western Iran, a problem that was only resolved between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in January 2021.

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Could it happen again?

While the damage to world travel is quarantined in this case, there is an implied danger. Another thin-skinned autocrat might get it into his head to do the same – and Russia's Vladimir Putin has demonstrated his willingness to deploy deadly nerve agents against dissidents including those who have sought refuge in other countries.

If Russia was to force an international flight to land and remove an outspoken dissenter the possible fallout could include a ban on aircraft using Russian airspace, an enormous disruption to world travel, albeit an inconvenience that pales alongside the injustice of state-sponsored kidnapping.

For anyone who causes annoyance to crackpot autocrats, the message is there's nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. And if you take a flight, use a US carrier if possible. The Americans would not take kindly to a tinpot tyrant forcing one of their aircraft to land at gunpoint.

See also: Why air traffic control is one of the world's most stressful jobs

See also: Why airlines no longer use rear-engine planes

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