RYANAIR'S BELARUS 'HIJACK': COULD ASIAN FLIGHTS BE GROUNDED IN A SQUABBLE WITH RUSSIA?

"Airlines have plenty to do without getting dragged into politics," a senior European aviation security figure told me.

RYANAIR'S BELARUS 'HIJACK': COULD ASIAN FLIGHTS BE GROUNDED IN A SQUABBLE WITH RUSSIA?

"It's upsetting to see that a government using overflying rights as a weapon."

While the Kremlin has sided with its client condition, Belarus, over Sunday's forced diversion of a Ryanair passenger plane to Minsk, it dismisses suggestions of any direct participation.

But Nato's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, told Sky News:"It is hard to feel the regime in Minsk could do anything like that without any kind of coordination with Russia." Along with the Kremlin has certainly flexed its air-traffic muscles since Sunday, when the Athens-Vilnius flight was ordered to land at the Belarus capital.

The pilots were told of a bomb threat from air traffic management in Minsk. Even though the destination airport in the Lithuanian capital was available and just 60 miles ahead, the crew were instructed to turn 100 miles east to Minsk. On arrival, two of those passengers were detained: Roman Protasevich -- a Belarusian dissident -- and his own girlfriend.

The episode was called"air piracy". The reply has been swift and predictable: airline police across Europe advised airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace, and the country airline, Belavia, was prohibited from western European towns.

While this particular set of circumstances has not prevailed before, the chances seemed after a couple of weeks or months the no-fly orders would be rescinded to allow normal air traffic to restart.

Moscow, though, appears eager to force the pace by playing hardball with its airspace. On Monday, a British Airways Boeing 777 was in the atmosphere with a flight plan that sliced across Belarus and onwards to Islamabad in Pakistan.

Following the order to avoid Belarus came , the pilots steered northwest. But they were made to hold, brief of the Russian boundary, while a brand new flight plan was negotiated with air traffic controls. Up to now and fuel was used that, when permission was finally granted to cross Russia, the airplane had to refuel in Moscow before continued to Islamabad.

From Wednesday, the airspace war had become chillier.

Effectively pilots were advised: either you arrive in the Russian frontier through Belarus airspace, or you are not coming in.

Friday's Air France departure from Paris to Moscow was cancelled, however, the day trip from the French capital on Aeroflot flew clean over Belarus.

The Russian leadership could make life even more embarrassing for hard-pressed airlines by rejecting any western Europe to east Asia flight plan that bypasses Belarus. On a London-Bangkok flight -- for the most direct route traverses Belarus -- preventing Russia is highly problematic. Additional no-fly zones, such as more southern Ukraine, intervene to include hundreds of miles into the journey. At a time when airlines are haemorrhaging cash, and every flight is positioned between gain and loss, the excess time and fuel burn can render some trips uneconomical.

Yet it is not a zero-cost option. Russia makes a fortune out of overflying rights. With the country's finances looking rocky, providing up a revenue stream worth tens of thousands of US dollars per hour to produce a political point might not be deemed worthwhile.

We have observed similar spats before: for around 20 months in 2019, Pakistan prohibited overflights of aircraft moving to or from India, forcing carriers to adopt time-consuming and expensive routes to prevent the airspace.

"It is important that we have a detailed and basic review of what occurred," my aviation security source says. "But we need to go back to business as usual."

Meanwhile, 10 daily flights each way are continuing between Minsk and Moscow.

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