First Freedom of the Air
Lead Editorial

First Freedom of the Air

On 23 May, Ryanair flight 4978, traveling from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania, was intercepted by the Belarussian Air Force and forced to land due to what they said was “a potential security threat on board,” as well as being told there was “the threat of a bomb on board.”

What choice did they have? It is a required that pilots follow the commands of any military intercept aircraft under threat of being shot down. Certainly, these rules are more seriously understood as we know the lengths that some terrorists will go to and have seen the results of using aircraft as bombs on 9/11.

Here are the rules pilots are required to follow during an interception. “Do not adjust your altitude, heading, or airspeed until directed to by the intercepting aircraft. An intercepted aircraft must, without delay:

1. Adhere to instructions relayed through the use of visual devices, visual signals, and radio communications from the intercepting aircraft.

2. Attempt to establish radio communications with the intercepting aircraft or with the appropriate ATC facility by making a general call on guard (121.5 MHz), giving the identity, position, and nature of the flight.

3. If transponder equipped, squawk 7700 unless otherwise instructed by ATC.

4. The crew of the intercepted aircraft must continue to comply with interceptor aircraft signals and instructions until positively released.

They were ordered to land in Minsk, Belarus. The Ryanair pilots had no choice but to land as they were told to do. Once on the ground the aircraft was searched but the key to all was the arrest and detention of one Ryanair passenger, Roman Protasevich (and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega).

A large movement is happening in that country and Protasevich was among those leading the movement. He organized a messaging app channel that was used to great success during the huge protests against Belarus’ president Alexander Lukashenko. It focused on opposition to the current leader, who some have called “Europe’s last dictator.” Protestors in the movement have demanded new democratic leadership and reform.

The protestors and some Western authorities have said that Lukashenko rigged the countries last election in August. Tight controls by police have kept protests under control. Some opposition leaders have been sent to prison or have gone into exile. Protasevich was living in exile. Now he is unable to leave Belarus, initially being kept in jail and now being kept under “house arrest.” Protasevich has been shown on state television expressing regret for his activities. The opposition has said he spoke under duress and showed signs of physical abuse.

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary called Belarus plane diversion and forced landing “state-sponsored hijacking … state-sponsored piracy.” The United States called it a “forced diversion.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said via Twitter shortly after it happened that the “outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,” adding those responsible “must be sanctioned.”

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) and the European Cockpit Association (ECA) released a statement saysing they “fully share the concerns expressed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regarding the forced landing of Ryanair Flight 4978 in Minsk, Belarus, on 23 May. Pilots are concerned that the intervention of the Belarussian Air Force was enacted for political reasons, in contravention of the Chicago Convention, and amounts to an act of unlawful interference, bearing all the hallmarks of state-sponsored hijacking.”

The groups called for an independent enquiry into the occurrence and appropriate immediate response by safety and security authorities. They said the event was an “unprecedented act of unlawful interference” that could potentially change assumptions about the safest response to bomb threats on flight and interceptions. “Without trust and reliable information from States and Air Navigation Service Providers, handling both types of events becomes much riskier to manage,” the two groups said in their statement. “Any military intervention against a civilian aircraft constitutes a wilful hazard to the safety of passengers and crew. IFALPA and ECA urge States and the International Aviation Community to investigate and take swift measures against similar occurrences,” their statement went on to say.

The U. S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, also made a statement condemning the action. “The United States strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk. We demand his immediate release. This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens. Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation.”

He went on to say that indications were that the forced landing was based on false pretenses. “We support the earliest possible meeting of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review these events.”

NATO made this statement about the occurrence: “The North Atlantic Council strongly condemns the forced diversion to Minsk, Belarus of a Ryanair flight between Athens and Vilnius on 23 May, as well as the removal from the diverted aircraft and arrest of Raman Pratasevich, a prominent Belarusian journalist travelling on board, and Sofia Sapega. This unacceptable act seriously violated the norms governing civil aviation and endangered the lives of the passengers and crew.” The statement went on to say, “We support calls for an urgent independent investigation, including by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). We support measures taken by Allies individually and collectively in response to this incident. The detention of Mr. Pratasevich is an affront to the principles of political dissent and freedom of the press. Belarus must immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Pratasevich and Ms. Sapega. NATO Allies call on Belarus to respect fundamental human rights and freedoms, and to abide by the rules-based international order. Allies stand in solidarity with Latvia following the unjustified expulsion of Latvian diplomats.”

Was this event piracy? Hijacking? A misunderstanding? A ruse? Whatever it may be called it certainly violated the ICAO First Freedom Right. First Freedom of the Air – the right or privilege, in respect of scheduled international air services, granted by one State to another State or States to fly across its territory without landing (also known as a First Freedom Right).

Diplomacy, statements and regulation aside, after the Ryanair aircraft, crew and passengers were allowed to continue on their way, Protasevich and his girlfriend were detained. He was shown recently on television looking worn. He concluded a 90-minute interview rambling on saying, “I am cooperating absolutely fully and openly…and live an ordinary, calm life, have a family, children, stop running away from something.” After which he buried his face in his hands and cried.