On Sunday, a Ryanair flight headed from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, took a sudden turn near the end of its trip and looped back to Minsk, Belarus, after being warned of a security threat. Belarusian authorities claimed, baselessly, that the redirect was necessary because of a bomb threat on board. This justification made little sense, given that Minsk was further away, but Belarus dispatched a fighter jet anyway to guide the plane back to the country’s capital. The real reason the flight was redirected, it turned out, was that it was carrying Roman Protasevich, a dissident Belarusian journalist, who was promptly arrested when the plane landed. The international community has described the incident as a state-sponsored hijacking, and the European Union has promised the country will face economic sanctions.
The next day, the EU asked that its airlines route around the country and that its member nations revoke permits for the national Belarusian airline. Some European and Asian airlines have already committed to not flying over Belarus. To get a sense of what this situation means for international air travel, Slate spoke with Ian Petchenik, the director of communications for the flight tracking website Flightradar24, on Monday. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Molly Olmstead: How’s your day going? I imagine it’s been a busy time for those plugged into the airline industry.
Ian Petchenik: It’s been a day. You know, the extremely-serious-international-incident-with-civil-aviation kind of day.
What did you think when you heard about the steps the EU was taking? Calling for EU-based airlines to stop flying over Belarus, but also trying to sort of start the process of banning the Belarusian airlines from flying over EU airspace?
Diverting an international flight that is over your airspace on purpose for any reason is a serious act. And this seems to be not even with a veneer of false pretense. It is something that has repercussions around the world. And if not responded to, other states could view this as a possible method. And I think that’s certainly something that the international community wants to not see happen.
How big of a deal is this?
It’s a huge deal. There’s very specific conventions in international law that relate to the operation of international air traffic. And this is really one of those things where it’s very clear that you’re not supposed to do this. This could have ended so badly, beyond the current situation, which ended terribly. What happens if that pilot misinterprets what the Ryanair aircraft is doing? What happens if they can’t communicate clearly? There’s so many things that could have gone wrong from 39,000 feet, when they met each other.
Then, on top of all of that, what happens now, in a real situation, where there is possibly a bomb on a plane? Does the pilot believe the air traffic controller who’s relaying that message? If there are all of a sudden fighter jets escorting the aircraft, is there a second thought there? One of the rules is if a fighter jet comes up on your wing, you should listen to that person, because if you are under threat, they have your safety in mind. So now do I second guess all that? Question if it’s false information about an emergency?
The precedent that this set is terrible, and hopefully the reaction to this is informed by all of that.
In the aviation industry, was there an expectation that the EU would do what it did?
The consensus coalesced around the EU doing something. This seems like it was an expected step, and one that’s proportional. And this is something that they can do fairly quickly: issue an airworthiness directive. I think most airlines, given recent history, are going to mitigate risk on their own as much as possible, especially where passenger airlines are concerned.
So it was not surprising that airlines were talking about avoiding that airspace?
No, I think that’s the most prudent course of action, as far as an airline is concerned. I mean, aviation is all about safety and risk mitigation. If you can be more safe by flying somewhere else, airlines are certainly going to do that.
What do you think this means for the industry?
Long term, your guess right now is as good as mine. The immediate effect is that airlines send aircraft on less efficient routings to get to the destination. They burn more fuel, they spend more time in the air, and it costs more money. It’s about 2,600 flights a week that pass through Belarus. That’s out of 75,000 commercial flights a day at this point in the pandemic. So we’re not talking about the huge numbers. This isn’t a huge effect on commercial aviation. It has a larger impact on the environment. But as far as the diversion goes, the action itself has a huge effect on commercial aviation.
And then the question becomes, for Belarus, what is the connectivity between the rest of the world? Where can their airliners fly? How does that affect their position in the world? But also how do you bring things into the country? If you are importing air cargo, where does that air cargo come from now, if it’s not coming from elsewhere in Europe?
How much would this alter passenger trips, or lengthen them?
Probably no more than an hour to 90 minutes in the worst-case scenario. Belarus isn’t a large country, and airlines certainly weren’t spending much time in their airspace to begin with. A north-south trip takes more time. So the Ryanair flight that was diverted, Athens to Vilnius—that takes a little more time than airlines that are traveling, say, from Germany or Poland or the Netherlands to places in Southeast Asia.
What do you think it would take for airlines to feel safe flying over that airspace?
As far as passenger lines are concerned, I do not know. I mean, looking at the map, it’s kind of annoying, but it’s not like flying from San Francisco to New York and having to avoid every other part of the U.S. It’s certainly not great as far as fuel burn, and environmental concerns, but it’s not a critical pass-through for flights.
What else do you want people who maybe don’t really know much about the airline industry to understand with all of this?
There’s been some criticism of the Ryanair crew. Their job is to get everybody safely on the ground. So the second guessing, I would have just kept flying to Lithuania or something like that is not really a line of reasoning I would go down, because the crew is trained to respond to what they believe to be a legitimate threat against the aircraft with standard procedures and protocols. Just in this case, it wasn’t legitimate. And that gets us back to the precedent this sets. Or hopefully doesn’t.