Ryanair boss: airlines must fly over rogue states despite Belarus ‘hijacking’
Airlines must remain free to fly over rogue states despite the “state-sponsored hijacking” of a plane by Belarus, according to the boss of Ryanair, as he told MPs of the “hostile and threatening” actions towards the flight crew in Minsk.
The captain and five crew of Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius were put under armed guard in Minsk after diverting the plane for a fake bomb threat – apparently staged to allow the Belarus government to capture an opposition journalist among the 126 passengers. Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested on landing.
The Ryanair chief executive, Michael O’Leary, said the crew were pressured to provide filmed statements saying that they had diverted voluntarily, although Minsk air traffic control had told the captain that a bomb would be detonated if the plane continued to its original destination in Lithuania. The ATC also falsely claimed to have tried to contact Ryanair’s operations base, leaving the captain with no option but to heed their advice, O’Leary said.
O’Leary told the Commons transport select committee on Tuesday that the captain was “repeatedly seeking an open line of communication to Ryanair’s operations control centre in Warsaw, various excuses came back from Minsk on why they couldn’t reach us, Ryanair weren’t answering the phone, all of which was completely untrue”.
He said the pilot’s only means of communications was through Minsk, which “confirmed it was a red alert”.
Upon landing, unidentified persons boarded the aircraft carrying video cameras, O’Leary said, to “repeatedly attempt to get the crew to confirm on video that they had voluntarily diverted.
“The crew were put under significant pressure, taken under armed guard and held for a number of hours. The captain was accompanied by an armed guard … It was a very hostile and threatening environment.”
O’Leary said that while the crew were trained to assess “bomb threats which are unfortunately relatively routine”, they had no way of planning for this situation.
“It is unprecedented, however, I believe since the 1945 Chicago convention, that an air traffic control system or a state agency would fabricate a case such as this … we have to as an airline for the safety of our passengers accept that what an ATC is telling us is true.”
He told MPs: “Even rogue states have not engaged in this kind of behaviour before. It’s an early warning that must be taken with the utmost seriousness at the highest diplomatic and political channels.”
The Belarusian carrier Belavia was barred from the EU and UK andother airlines were told to avoid the nation’s airspace after the hijacking. However, O’Leary said: “Short-term sanctions were absolutely appropriate but it’s not a long-term solution.”
“It is very dangerous territory if we’re going to start politicising overflying rights,” he said.
Russia initially barred some European flights from flying over its airspace in retaliation for the instruction to avoid Belarus.
O’Leary added: “Most of the air routes between the UK, Europe and Asia overfly awhole series of countries we would consider to be bad actors or dodgy.”
Rerouting flights would cost airlines millions, he said.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation is conducting an inquiry, and its report is expected to be published later this month.