Belarus incident threatens aviation safety culture
The hijacking of Ryanair flight 4978 by Belarusian air traffic control on the seemingly spurious motive of a bomb threat last month drew an unusually swift response from the international community.
Airlines have been advised not to fly over Belarus, the national carrier has been banned from EU airspace, and sanctions against Belarusian elite are being drawn up.
Belarus is widely suspected of fabricating a bomb threat to arrest a political dissident. This may not be the first time that a state has forced a jet plane to land for political purposes. But this is the first time many industry players have remembered that civilian air traffic control was militarized – used by a state to send a false message to a commercial airliner to force it to land.
Now that the way has been shown, others can follow. So what can be done?
One might assume that Belarus has violated international aviation law. But, in fact, Article 1 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, which sets the global framework for safe and efficient civilian flight, states that: “Each State has complete and exclusive sovereignty over space. air over its territory ”. This opening clause is the sine qua non for an international civil aviation system to exist.
Yet it is also the greatest weakness in ensuring the integrity of global aviation, as the incident with Ryanair has shown. “If the state decides there are good reasons to ask a plane to land, it can do so with impunity,” says Jim Bell, co-head of aviation at the law firm Watson Farley & Williams.
Belarus’ actions are clearly at odds with the spirit of the convention, and the precedent could have serious repercussions on the aviation industry. These go far beyond the need to avoid flying over Belarus, which will increase fuel and emissions costs.
Pilots need to be able to trust what controllers tell them. If they have to guess the motives behind what they are being asked to do – and, in particular, in a stressful situation such as a bomb threat – this will only add to already complex procedures and put at risk. Security.
“This unprecedented act of unlawful interference will potentially overturn all assumptions about the safest response to bomb threats on flights and interceptions,” said the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations.
The difficulty is that there is no obvious cure for the problem. The ideal solution would be to create an independently managed international system for the provision of air navigation services.
That may not have stopped Belarus from forging a bomb threat and passing it on to flight 4978. But the normal procedure for a bomb threat is to land at the nearest airport. An independent air navigation service provider reportedly directed the plane to Vilnius, just 72 km away when the pilot made the decision to land, instead of Minsk, 183 km away. At the very least, the young dissident and his companion would still be free.
Yet, after decades of efforts, the EU is struggling to get Member States to implement measures that do not correspond to this independent ideal. The Single European Sky initiative was launched some 20 years ago to reduce the fragmentation of European airspace and improve the performance of air traffic management. A few weeks ago, Willie Walsh, head of the aviation industry trade body, Iata, warned that the initiative was on the verge of collapse due to “the intransigence and selfishness of the mainstream. EU States and their air navigation service providers ”.
Most countries are unwilling to give up their sovereign right to manage their own airspace, even with substantial reservations to ensure the military’s freedom of action in the event of threat or conflict.
The EU has acted with haste in cracking down on Belarusian actions. But flight restrictions and possible penalties may not be enough to stop others from following suit. It would be much better if the system itself was designed to make such actions more difficult.
Brussels has developed an EU-wide foreign air policy, replacing Member States’ bilateral agreements with other countries. These EU agreements relate to safety, security and competition. Perhaps they could also be used as leverage in an attempt to start reforming the way air navigation services are operated globally.
But the EU will first have to tidy up its own hangar. As long as Member States procrastinate on the Single European Sky, it will be difficult to argue that others should go even further.