Tetris – Belarus Plane ‘Hijacking’ Could Revive a Cold War-Era Division of Airspace
For airlines, one of the most alarming aspects of the forced landing in Belarus to seize a journalist is how easily it was done.
Restarting international travel amid a faltering recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic will be difficult enough as it is. The threat of a new era of state-sponsored hijacking will make it a whole lot more challenging.
The raw truth behind the incident Sunday is that the military controls the skies, and civilians are only there as guests. If governments and the air forces they control choose to violate the freedoms on which we depend to get from place to place, there’s very little that carriers can do about it.
No sophisticated technology was needed to achieve this asymmetric coup, as my colleague Clara Ferreira Marques has written. Belarusian air traffic control called in a warning of a security threat as the Athens to Vilnius flight was crossing its airspace, and an antiquated MiG-29 fighter was sent to escort it to the capital of Minsk, where Raman Pratasevich was removed from the plane.
Such interceptions are a relatively routine activity. Fighter jets shepherded a small aircraft away last year after it wandered into the restricted airspace over the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. Another was driven away from President Joe Biden’s Delaware home just last week. NATO and Russian military aircraft are routinely scrambled to respond to intrusions by the other side, with more than 60 Russian planes probing Alaska’s airspace alone last year. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration even provides a handy fact sheet to show pilots what to do “if you are intercepted by U.S. military or law enforcement aircraft.”
Efforts to silence and detain people who’ve annoyed authorities are also rife, with governments around the world — from China and Saudi Arabia to Russia and the U.S. — demonstrating a willingness to experiment with rendition.
The European Union’s warning Monday that its airlines should avoid Belarusian airspace merely adds a small piece to the global jigsaw puzzle of countries where overflights are restricted. A swathe of the Middle East from Libya to Iran is treated as a no-fly zone by most operators due to the risk that wars may post to aircraft, according to the Conflict Zone & Risk Database.
Lower-level risk zones spread across northeast Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ukraine, North Korea, Russia, the Philippines, Venezuela — and even Japan, where Pyongyang’s missile testing is treated as a potential ongoing threat. Far from being open skies, the world’s airspace resembles a Tetris puzzle where carriers have to find the routes that best balance fuel costs and security concerns.
Things were even dicier in the past. The Soviet Union and China once blocked most overflights by outside airlines. Flying from London to Tokyo would often involve a westbound journey with a refueling stop in Anchorage, a route about a third longer and far less fuel-efficient than the more direct path over Siberia. Violations could have deadly consequences: 269 people were killed on Korean Air Lines Flight 007 from New York to Seoul in 1983, after it wandered into Soviet airspace and was shot down.
The easing of those restrictions at the end of the Cold War is an under-appreciated factor in the rise of aviation as a global rather than strictly domestic industry. International flights in the mid-1980s carried only about half of passenger and cargo traffic, but departures soared in the 1990s and made up 70% of the pre-pandemic total.
That adds up to a grim picture for the aviation industry whenever international flights finally start to return to normal. For the moment, paths over the vast areas controlled by authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China will remain essential parts of most long-haul airlines’ route maps.
The freedoms of the air governing those routes are as fundamental to carriers’ ability to operate on a global scale as twin-aisle jets. Without them, fuel costs would rise to levels that would be prohibitive at the best of times, let alone the aftermath of a global pandemic when carriers are teetering under hundreds of billions in new debts.
Should the new Belarusian style of hijacking grow in popularity the way the traditional form did in the 1970s, though, even the most pessimistic assumptions about the future of the aviation industry may have to be downgraded.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Rachel Rosenthal at [email protected]