Belarus may have become increasingly isolated with every year that dictator Alexander Lukashenko clings to power. But the country has remained an important fly-over territory for airliners, particularly since parts of neighboring Ukraine were deemed unsafe to traverse in the wake of the 2014 downing of a Malaysian Airlines aircraft.
About 400 flights a day use Belarus airspace, including about 300 that pass over without landing, according to Eurocontrol, which is responsible for managing Europe’s airspace. Now European airlines have begun skirting around Belarus at the directive of European Union leaders.
The move follows international furor over the interception on May 23 of a Ryanair Holdings Plc jetliner, which was forced to land in Minsk en route from Greece to Lithuania so that authorities could arrest a dissident Belarusian journalist who was on board.
On Tuesday, long-haul airliners belonging to Air France-KLM, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and British Airways began flying over Latvia instead of the traditional route over Belarus, adding extra distance and time to the flights. Most carriers overflying Belarus will be re-routed through the Baltic states, Eurocontrol said, which might add about 40 nautical miles to their journeys.
The airspace over Belarus is part of a major through-way for flights between Asia and Europe. The country charges airlines between 245 euros ($300) for an Airbus SE A320 jet to as much as 770 euros for an A380 super-jumbo to use their airspace, Eurocontrol said. In 2019, Eurocontrol collected 85 million euros in air navigation charges on behalf of Belarus, it said.
Barring overflight by European airlines may deprive Belarus of as much as half of its air transit fees, said Oleksandr Laneckij of aviation consultancy Friendly Avia Support.
Similarly, state airline Belavia could see a halving of its annual revenue, which totaled about $210 million in 2020, Laneckij said. The U.K. suspended the carrier’s operating permit that lets it land abroad, and some EU countries have followed suit.
The commercial aviation industry has become more accustomed to no-fly zones, be it because of erupting volcanoes in Iceland or Indonesia, conflicts on the ground that can threaten aircraft passing overhead or a politically motivated ban, as was the case for several years for Qatar, which wasn’t able until recently to pass through Saudi Arabia and other allied countries.
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia closed its airspace to Israeli flights, news service Channel 13 reported, leading to delays.
Short-haul carriers such as Wizz Air Holdings Plc and Ryanair have also begun flying circuitous routes around Belarus on some of their services, according to airplane tracking website FlightRadar24.
Belavia, meanwhile, has canceled some flights. It usually operates 20 routes to 17 EU countries, including four destinations in Germany, according to aviation consultancy Cirium.
While it would depend on the route, avoiding Belarus will have a bigger impact on short-haul journeys that normally pass through the region, according to John Strickland, a consultant at London-based JLS Consulting. Conversely, long-distance flights have more time and flexibility to reroute, though the latest no-fly zone adds to to the industry’s growing list of restrictions in the pandemic
— With assistance by Aliaksandr Kudrytski, Jeremy Diamond and Ben Priechenfried