Ryanair Sun B738 near Minsk on May 23rd 2021, Greece calls diversion states hijack

Last Update: June 3, 2021 / 03:19:16 GMT/Zulu time

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Incident Facts

Date of incident
May 23, 2021


Flight number

Aircraft Registration

Aircraft Type
Boeing 737-800

ICAO Type Designator

A Ryanair Sun Boeing 737-800, registration SP-RSM performing flight FR-4978 from Athens (Greece) to Vilnius (Lithuania) with 126 passengers and 6 crew, was enroute a FL390 about 45nm south of Vilnius still in Belarus Airspace, when the aircraft diverted to Minsk (Belarus), located about 90nm east of their present position, where the aircraft landed safely about 25 minutes later.

The aircraft remained on the ground in Minsk for about 7 hours, then continued the flight with 5 passengers less than had arrived in Minsk, climbed to FL090 enroute and reached Vilnus with a delay of 8.5 hours.

The circumstances of the diversion are entirely unclear. No official confirmation is available so far, also not from Ryanair, how many passengers boarded the aircraft in Athens and how many disembarked in Vilnius (and whether there had been any passenger left behind in Minsk and how many).

There are claims that Mig29 fighter aircraft may have been dispatched to intercept and force the Boeing to Minsk.

Belarus Opposition claims one of their activitists and his fiancee have been detained in Minsk, in addition four Russians did not continue their journey to Vilnius.

Sources in Belarus claim all passengers continued on to Vilnius.

Other sources in Belarus and Russia claim, the opposition activist has been detained in Minsk.

Greece's foreign Minister rated the occurrence a states hijack, the aircraft has been hijacked by Belarus. According to the Greek Foreign Ministry 171 passengers departed Athens. The Greek Foreign Ministry stated further: "We condemn the illegal arrest of the Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich, who is threatened with the death penalty. Mr Protasevich was part of a delegation led by Belarussian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who recently attended the Delphi Forum."

Lithuania's Prime Minister said: "What happened today is an attack not only on Lithuania. This is the act of state terrorism directed against the security of citizens of the EU and other countries."

ICAO voiced concern about the "forced landing" stating that this might be in contravention of the Chicago convention.

Political leaders around the EU and its members voice concern about this "forced landing" and call for action.

The president of the European Commission said: "It is utterly unacceptable to force Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk. ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured. Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences." Later she added: "The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately."

On May 24th 2021 The Aviation Herald received first concrete information, that Roman Protasevich (26, Belarus Citizen) and his girl friend/fiancee (Russian Citizen) were detained in Minsk and could not continue their journey. In addition three Russian citizens did not continue the journey to Vilnius.

On May 24th 2021 Lithuania's Authorities reported that 126 passengers and 6 crew were on board of the aircraft, when it departed Athens, but 121 passengers and 6 crew were on board when the aircraft arrived in Vilnius.

On May 25th 2021 Eurocontrol's Network Operations Center Brussels released following statement (also following measures taken by EU):

In the wake of the alleged "bomb threat" on a Ryanair commercial passenger flight FR4978, which made an emergency landing at Minsk National Airport on May 23rd,  2021, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) initiated a safety and security assessment of the Belarusian airspace.

Hoaxes, bomb threats and security alerts affecting the aviation sector in general are credible concerns - Though bomb threats rarely translate into actual attacks, they remain likely to cause disruption through heightened aviation security measures in the near term at Belarusian airports.

In the light of these, EASA would like to raise concerns with regards to the risk to commercial aviation and as a precautionary measure, the Agency recommends the European air carriers to exercise caution when operating within or over FIR Minsk (UMMV).

Due to this non-commonly security occurrence, EASA would invite you to share this information with your airlines so that they take it into account in their own risk assessments, alongside any available guidance or directions from their national authorities as appropriate.

The Agency continues to monitor the situation to assess whether there is an increase or de-escalation of the risk for EU aircraft operators as a result of the evolution of the situation.

NMOC Brussels

On May 25th 2021 IFALPA and ECA (Pilot Associations) released a joint statement:

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) and the European Cockpit Association (ECA) fully share the concerns expressed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regarding the forced landing of Ryanair Flight 4978 in Minsk, Belarus, on 23 May. Pilots are concerned that the intervention of the Belarussian Air Force was enacted for political reasons, in contravention of the Chicago Convention, and amounts to an act of unlawful interference, bearing all the hallmarks of state-sponsored hijacking.

We are calling for an independent enquiry into this occurrence and appropriate immediate response by safety and security authorities. This unprecedented act of unlawful interference will potentially upend all the assumptions about the safest response to bomb threats on flight and interceptions. Without trust and reliable information from States and Air Navigation Service Providers, handling both types of events becomes much riskier to manage.

IFALPA and ECA stress that the pilot-in-command always has the best overview of the actual situation on board and must be able to react according to the level of risk, regardless of external circumstances. Any measures taken by States to address a specific threat should enhance the crew's ability to assess the situation thoroughly.

Any military intervention against a civilian aircraft constitutes a wilful hazard to the safety of passengers and crew. IFALPA and ECA urge States and the International Aviation Community to investigate and take swift measures against similar occurrences. We also call upon the airline to provide full support to the pilots and cabin crew on board, both during the future investigation and regarding their physical and mental well-being after such a challenging and stressful event.

On May 26th 2021 Poland's Accident Investigation Board released their statement saying:

Statement of the State Commission on Aircraft Accidents Investigation related to the flight FR4978

After analyzing the available information on flight FR4978, the State Commission on Aircraft Accidents Investigation has concluded that the occurrence involving the landing of the Boeing 737-800, SP-RSM, on UMMS airport on May 23, 2021 does not meet the criteria for an accident or incident as defined in Annex 13 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation as well as European Union and national regulations, therefore the occurrence will not be investigated by the Commission.

The occurrence shows characteristics of an unlawful interference and, in accordance with Annex 17 to the above-mentioned Convention, European Union regulations and the Act - Aviation Law, it is processed by the Civil Aviation Authority and the judicial authorities of the Republic of Poland.

On May 25th 2021 the CAA Belarus had released a statement which portrayed to quote the email containing the bomb hoax and being sent by Hamas via Proton Mail (which was instantly denied by Hamas - the conflict in Israel had already stopped in a cease fire at that time) and a supposed transcript of the ATC communication (editorial note: which is at least incomplete and not logical at all).

On May 27th 2021 Proton Mail stated, that the email sent to Belarus was transmitted only 24 minutes after the crew had been warned and a few minutes after the crew had already initiated the diversion to Minsk.

On Jun 2nd 2021 EASA issued their Safety Directive 2021-03 requiring following actions from all Aircraft operators involved in air operations in accordance with Commission Regulation (EU) 965/2012 in respect of which EASA has issued an Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) and acts as the Competent Authority:

Pending the finalisation of an international investigation into the incident that occurred on 23 May 2021 initiated by the ICAO Council on 27 May 2021, or until further notice:

Aircraft Operators to whom this SD applies, shall:

(1) Not conduct operations in FIR Minsk (UMMV), unless the use of that airspace is deemed necessary to ensure safe operation in case of unforeseen circumstances.

(2) Take measures to implement the above-specified corrective action within maximum 2 days from the effective date of this SD and inform EASA of those measures.

EASA reasons:

On 23 May 2021, Ryanair flight FR4978, while overflying Belarus en-route to its final destination, Vilnius, was made to divert by Belarusian authorities and land in Minsk. The aeroplane ultimately departed and arrived in Vilnius with considerable delay after several passengers were forcibly disembarked in Minsk. The circumstances surrounding this action cast serious doubts on the respect shown by Belarus for international civil aviation rules and is indicative of an abuse of air navigation procedures by the Belarusian authorities. As such, it is a breach of the principles underlying the mutual trust that are at the cornerstone of international civil aviation.

Until an international investigation clarifies the circumstances, EASA has reservations whether the Belarusian airspace can still be considered as safe for civilian flights by the international community, as there is no full confidence in the ability of the current Belarusian authorities to manage the Belarusian airspace in accordance with international agreements.

On 25 May 2021, EASA issued Safety Information Bulletin (SIB) 2021-10 advising aircraft operators, having their principal place of business in one of the EASA Member States, to avoid operations in FIR Minsk (UMMV), unless the use of that airspace is deemed necessary to ensure safe operation in case of unforeseen circumstances.

On 27 May 2021, the ICAO Council decided to undertake a fact-finding investigation of this event, and in this connection requested the ICAO Secretariat to prepare an interim report to the Council for a subsequent meeting of the current session, presenting the available facts and relevant legal instruments.

Information from air traffic management indicates that there are still operators having their principal place of business in EASA Member States that continue to operate in the FIR Minsk (UMMV). Accordingly, and after consulting with the EASA Member States and the European Commission, EASA decided to issue SD 2021-02 determining safety objectives to be achieved and recommending corrective measures to be taken by the EASA Member States’ NCAs to ensure safety of aircraft operations.

Consequently, EASA, acting as Competent Authority (CA) responsible for the certification and oversight of aircraft operators involved in air operations in accordance with Commission Regulation (EU) 965/2012 has determined corrective actions to be taken by air operators holding an Air Operator Certificate (AOC) issued by EASA in accordance with that regulation.

EASA will monitor the developments in relation with this case and will adjust, as needed, the corrective actions accordingly. Such reviews will be done whenever the circumstances will require it and in any case at intervals not exceeding one month.
Incident Facts

Date of incident
May 23, 2021


Flight number

Aircraft Registration

Aircraft Type
Boeing 737-800

ICAO Type Designator

This article is published under license from Avherald.com. © of text by Avherald.com.
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