The British government said Monday it would ban Belarus’s national airline from landing or operating in the country the day after that country’s leader dispatched a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight to board an opposition journalist seize.
The UK also said it is advising airlines leaving the UK to avoid flying through Belarusian airspace “to protect passenger safety”. Belarus in East Central Europe lies on an important air corridor between Europe and Asia.
The steps came as airlines and lawmakers tried to find the right way to respond to the widely perceived shocking move by Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the Belarusian president who stayed in power despite major protests last year. European Union officials are expected to meet on Monday to discuss their options for punishing the country that is closely linked to Russia.
The UK government said it is suspending all flights from Belavia, the Belarusian national airline, to the UK immediately. “This essentially means that travel from Belarus to the UK is not possible,” said a government spokesman.
On Monday earlier, at least two airlines announced that they would be diverting flights away from Belarusian airspace as a precaution, but most airlines appear to be waiting to hear from European authorities what to do.
The Lithuanian transport minister announced that all flights to and from Lithuanian airports must avoid the airspace of neighboring Belarus, Reuters reported. The minister, Marius Skuodis, said the ban would start at 3 a.m. local time on Tuesday.
Ryanair executive director Michael O’Leary on Monday condemned the actions of the Belarusian authorities who ordered the plane to fly from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, to land in the capital Minsk, and then arrested the dissident Roman on board Protasevich and his companion.
“This was a case of government sponsored kidnapping, government sponsored piracy,” O’Leary told interviewers from Newstalk, an Irish radio station.
However, Mr O’Leary said he was awaiting instructions from the European Union authorities in Brussels as to whether other flights should be directed away from Belarus.
He added that it would be easy for his flights to avoid the country’s airspace. “We don’t fly much over Belarus,” he said. “It would be a very minor adjustment to fly over Poland,” he added. Ryanair, an Ireland-based low-cost airline, calls itself Europe’s largest airline group.
Some analysts say the European Union may not be ready to ban flights over Belarus as such a move would cause difficulties for European airlines. Airlines are already avoiding Ukraine, the country’s southern neighbor, due to conflicts with Russia, and therefore blocking Belarusian airspace would cause serious routing problems for flights from Europe to Asia as well.
“Flying from Europe to Asia without crossing Belarus is probably too costly and challenging,” analysts at research firm Eurasia Group wrote in a note on Monday.
Other airlines flying shorter routes are already making changes.
AirBaltic, the Latvian national airline, said their planes would avoid entering Belarusian airspace “until the situation becomes clearer or a decision is made by the authorities”. The diverted flights include flights from Riga, the airline’s home base, to Odessa in Ukraine and Tbilisi in Georgia.
Another airline that flies in the region, Wizz Air, said it would change the flight route from Kiev, Ukraine to Tallinn, Estonia to bypass Belarus.
“We are continuously monitoring and evaluating the situation,” said a spokesman for Wizz Air based in Hungary.
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