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How Belarus ‘hijacking’ has redrawn Europe’s air map

In the week since Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius was forcibly diverted to Minsk, travel in Europe already looks very different.

Three days after the incident — in which Belarusian fighter jets escorted the airplane to land in the capital citing security concerns, before arresting opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his Russian companion Sofia Sapega — European airlines were formally stopped from flying over Belarusian airspace.

The directive, issued Wednesday by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) under the form of a Safety Information Bulletin (SIB), called on all airlines “with their principle place of business in one of the EASA member states” to avoid Belarusian airspace. They advised that all other airlines should do the same, wherever they are based.

The directive came a day after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the bloc was “closing our airspace to planes from Belarus,” calling on EU airlines not to fly over the country after the “outrageous behavior” shown on Sunday.

It’s not just the EU. Other major carriers including Singapore Airlines have also vowed to bypass Belarusian airspace.

There were other impliations, with Russia — an ally of Belarus — taking several days to grant Air France and Austrian Airlines flights to Moscow the clearance to use Russian airspace to divert around Belarus, prompting cancelations.

So how big a deal is this? Huge, say industry insiders — big enough to have already shaken the aviation map of Europe, and big enough to have knock-on effects beyond the continent — particularly if the situation escalates further.

If it did, passengers could see their flight times increased, a rise in fares across the networks, and even long-haul, nonstop flights needing to make refueling stops along the way.

Of course, that’s a worst-case scenario. But coming after a disastrous 15 months for aviation, as the travel industry in Europe gears up for the busy summer season amid ever-changing travel restrictions and passenger concerns about the pandemic, there couldn’t be a worse time to add another layer of uncertainty.

“It’ll send jitters around passengers at a time when they’re already jittery because of Covid,” says Paul Charles, a former director of Virgin Atlantic who now provides crisis consultation to airlines as CEO of the PC Agency.

“I think it does affect consumer confidence — especially if you’re flying in a region near Belarus.

“Now that they’re not flying over its airspace, that’s good — governments have acted swiftly to restore confidence — but I think it’ll throw up questions for consumers over who they’re flying with, which points they’re flying between and how they’re flying between them. If you were flying from Athens to Lithuania, or in the region around Russia, you might think twice.

“It’s the fact that it’s happened that will make people start to question it

The events, described by some governments as a state-sponsored hijacking, have “inevitably redrawn the aviation map of Europe,” says one airline industry insider, who wanted to remain anonymous due to the risk of being identified. (For those currently working in aviation, the topic is dynamite.)

But the issues don’t just end there, they say.

“The problem you have is the challenge around where you draw the new map — that whole region has restrictions.

“There are already restrictions flying over Ukraine” — after the 2014 incident in which Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down.

“The impact [of dodging Belarusian airspace] is quite significant — no British operator, including Ryanair, has been flying over Crimea for some time, and that situation may take decades to resolve.

“So Belarus had seen a huge increase in traffic because people were going around Ukraine.”

And the impact of these workarounds isn’t just a question of logistics — diverting around a country can mean longer flights, more fuel burned, impromptu stopovers for refueling, and higher operation costs — including extra crew, if the longer flight time pushes them over their limits, or requires more crew.

The insider points to a British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Islamabad, the day after the original incident. The ban on Belarusian airspace took place after it was already in the air, and it had to divert to Moscow to refuel, before continuing to Heathrow.

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