Paris, France: Global airlines are avoiding the airspace of Belarus after the country diverted a Ryanair jet and arrested a dissident journalist on board.
The incident has caused a new headache to airlines already hurting from the travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Here is how it is affecting the aviation sector:
How did governments and airlines react?
The event became the main topic of a European Union summit on Monday, prompting leaders to urge EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and ban the country’s carriers from the 27-nation bloc.
Britain also issued instructions for British aircraft to avoid Belarusian airspace while Ukraine decided to halt direct flights between the two countries and over Belarus.
Major air carriers including Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, Finnair, SAS, Singapore Airlines, and Japan’s ANA suspended flights over the country and redirected those already en route.
How many flights?
Nearly 2,500 commercial airplanes fly over Belarus every week, according to Eurocontrol, which coordinates air traffic control in the EU.
That figure is lower than usual due to the pandemic’s effect on air travel.
A few planes could be spotted flying over Belarus on FlightRadar24, a plane tracking website, on Tuesday afternoon — such as a China Eastern Airlines flight from Shanghai to Madrid or an Aeroflot plane heading to Minsk from Moscow.
What’s the impact?
Belarus is on a route linking Europe and Asia, but airlines have several other routes which are often used when weather forces flight changes.
Airlines have already had to tweak their routes in the region, skipping part of Ukraine due to restrictions imposed following a conflict between pro-Russia separatists and Kiev forces in the east.
In July 2014, a Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was hit by a Russian-made BUK missile over rebel-held territory, killing all 298 people on board.
Diverting flights “will increase flight times, and require more fuel and more maintenance hours”, a long-haul pilot told AFP on condition of anonymity.
But it is still possible to find alternative routes despite the situation in the region, the pilot said, adding that the act of “piracy” by the Belarusian government had angered pilots.
An ANA spokesman said avoiding Belarus will have “limited consequences because there are many route choices”.
The Russian government voiced regret at Europe’s decision to cut air links with ex-Soviet Belarus.
“It is very expensive for any company to fly around the territory of a rather large country located in the center of Europe,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
It will cause more trouble for shorter flights.
A Kiev to Vilnius flight by Hungarian budget airline Wizz Air took one hour and 32 minutes on Tuesday compared to 57 minutes on Thursday, as it had to go around Belarus through Poland, according to FlightRadar24.
How does it affect Belarus?
Belarusian state airline Belavia, which has 30 aircraft, operates nearly one-fifth of the 2,500 flights that use Belarusian airspace every week.
Twenty Belavia flights flew to and from EU airports on Monday, while scores used EU airspace, according to Eurocontrol. The links have now been cut.
Another financial hit for Belarus is the loss of revenue from fees that airlines pay to fly over the country.
Avoiding a country’s airspace due to politics or conflicts is nothing new.
Nations can ban flights over their territories or restrict their airlines from flying over sensitive areas.
Qatar Airways had to fly around the Arabian peninsula to reach Europe and the United States for four years until January due to a boycott imposed by Saudi Arabia.
A conflict between the militant group Hamas in Gaza and Israel prompted Israel to reroute planes towards the south of the country.
Commercial flights also avoid airspaces in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq due to conflicts.