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Mixing aviation with politics

Airline executives don’t like mixing aviation with politics. Yet, politics seems to have just ruthlessly interfered with civil aviation. The Belarus incident with Ryanair flight 4978 shattered fundamental rules, protocols and trust that have in the past prevented tragedies and probably saved thousands of lives. 

The crew of FR4978 were not in an enviable position – to say the least. As the Belarus Air Traffic Control (ATC) – possibly following an instruction – was feeding them with confusing information about a bomb on board, asking them to divert from their flight path, the crew finally took the uneasy decision to divert to Minsk. Faced with a serious security threat, vague information, and under pressure, the safest and most reasonable decision was to follow the ATC recommendations. After all, ATC is the crew’s safety net and is both expected and trusted to act as one team, especially in emergency situations. 

Obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see how this belief prevented the pilots from charting a different course and flying to the nearest airport in Vilnius. What exactly the sequence of events was, will be the subject of an ICAO Council “fact-finding investigation”. Until then, avoiding the airspace of Belarus – or for that matter any state which places politics above aviation safety and security – is desirable and supported by ECA, and has in the meantime been mandated by Europe’s safety watchdog EASA. 

The Ryanair FR4978 incident shattered fundamental rules, protocols and trust

Some argue that putting the entire Belarus airspace off-limits is not necessary because the chances of another such incident are low. Yet, this assessment fails to factor in that the trust and reliability of ATC in Belarus is severely damaged. EASA is also questioning the ability of Belarus to provide safe air navigation services. If pilots fly over a country and can’t trust Air Traffic Control, or have to make a judgement call about the motivations or the trustworthiness of the safety and security information provided by ATC, then no one on that flight can feel safe. Scrutinizing and doubting the information keeps pilots distracted and ultimately impairs safety. 

The impact of this incident on the aviation community clearly extends beyond Belarus: If trust in the aviation system is gone, safety is compromised.

It was politics that placed civil aviation right at the centre of this conflict and perhaps it will require politics again to hold accountable those who are responsible for the incident, impose measures and thereby ultimately restore the belief in aviation’s rule of law.