The event of May 23, 2021, that resulted in the hijacking of Ryanair flight and the eventual arrest of Belarusian Roman Protasevich has left the entire Europe in shock. It was received with dismay, not because hijacking is a new security challenge within the aviation industry but for the fact that the particular incident was founded on falsehood and claims of a bomb threat orchestrated by a sovereign state in an effort to detain a dissident journalist and activist running from political prosecution.

Ryanair Sun Boeing 737-800 performing its regular flight FR-4978 from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania was redirected and forced to land at Minsk National Airport on the instructions of President Alexander Lukashenko. Protasevich alongside opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had sought refuge in Lithuania after organising protests following the controversial victory of President Alexander Lukashenko in the 2020 Belarusian presidential election. The flight which carried aboard 126 passengers and 6 crew was rerouted about 45nm south of Vilnius in Belarus Airspace and remained on the bottom in Minsk for about 7 hours, then continued and reached Vilnius with a delay of 8.5 hours.

It is not the first incident affecting commercial flights in Europe. Other incidents have happened in the past involving commercial flights at Athens, Zurich, Beirut, Frankfort. Examples include bombings and the burning of the flag aircraft of different nations. Hence, hijacking and other types of challenges related to aviation security involving commercial flights are matters of significant concern to the international community because such acts threaten the peaceful functioning of the aviation industry.

What are the risks of hijacking to aviation security?

Perhaps the most dangerous risk associated with aircraft hijacking is the record of zero passenger fatalities which has helped advanced the course of hijackers. Only a few people consider hijacking to be a nuisance, an annoyance or a small amount of semi-pleasant excitement, but not a criminal act with the potential for disaster. Nevertheless, it becomes very disturbing when hijacking is completed by not just a nation-state but one which is a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). It puts a question mark on the principle of adherence to international norms fundamental to making sure the protection and security of aircraft, passengers and crew are assured. What Belarus did seem to have shaken the foundation of the 1944 Chicago Convention on international civil aviation devoted to the preservation of friendship and mutual understanding among the nations and peoples of the world.

The cooperation that has reigned between nation-states within the development of international civil aviation for over 70 years has suddenly turned into conflict, compromising Annex 17 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation geared toward Safeguarding International Civil Aviation Against Acts of Unlawful Interference and laying out the minimum-security standard expected of all contracting states. It becomes found wanting when states which are party to the convention begin to break the laws since triggers a crisis of non-compliance. Reactions from Australia, Belgium, Latvia, Lithuania, China, Greece, Canada, Poland, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, US, UK and Ukraine demonstrate the seriousness of the problem. ICAO expressed concern about the action of Belarus, describing it as a “threat to international civil aviation” which requires investigation. E.U. leaders responded by suspending Belarusian airlines from flying over the airspace of member states and denying them landing rights in E.U. countries.

In disagreement with the EU, Russia argued that the incident was not noticeably different from the grounding of the presidential airplane of Bolivian President Evo Morales in Austria in July 2013 as European countries rescinded permission in midflight to refuel or use their airspace with the hope of arresting American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. Russia has also blocked EU flights from entering its airspace like Air France flight from Paris and an Austrian Airlines service from Vienna as an “apparent tit-for-tat move in response to EU measures against Belarus.” The massive question now could be whether the reaction of ICAO, the Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC), the EU Commission and other organisations that have a posture on aviation security will put Belarus to order and stop similar incidents from happening in the future.

Other threats to international civil aviation

Apart from hijacking which has plummeted within the last decade, a 2017 legal report from ICAO shows that international civil aviation is liable to other numerous and evolving threats difficult enough to predict. These new and emerging threats affect all facets of civil aviation putting passenger aircraft, air cargo, airports, and related facilities and operations in danger. They include terrorism such as suicide bombers, increased risk of cyber terrorism to aviation information systems, insider threat presenting potential risks to schedule carriers, civil unrest impacting flight and cabin crew and flight/airport operations, human trafficking, inadequately documented travellers, and smuggling of medicine, species and other contraband.

Some of the explanations why civil aviation could constitute high priority targets for criminals ranges from vulnerability because of high pax traffic, the limited risk to perpetrators, symbolic statement generating media imagery, generate public anxiety, ability to inflict mass casualties, damage to economy or travel and disruption of scheduled travel.

Mitigating aviation insecurity

The US government supposes that hijacking may be stopped by way of detection, frustration and deterrence. Detection means detecting the would-be hijacker before he gets on the airplane and denying him passage, frustration involves frustrating a mid-air attempt by either mechanical or human means or both, and deterrence means deterring future hijackers-with emphasis on punishing the successful hijacker.

Concluding remarks

The incident of May 23, 2021, involving Ryanair sets a new stage for aviation security with regards to interpretation and the applicability of international norms and principles. Rising political tensions in Europe with the E.U. on the one hand and Belarus and Russia on the other suspending flights to and from each other’s airspace might restrain international cooperation and bring nation-states to the brink of conflict. What this means is that a new Convention might be necessary for the field of international civil aviation to help regulate and punish actions of states previously not considered.

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