What do we know so far about the Ryanair Belarusian ‘hijacking’

The event drew widespread condemnation and could potentially cause sanctions to be imposed on the country. Key.Aero collates what is known about the unusual incident

European low-cost airline Ryanair has accused Belarusian authorities of an “act of air piracy”, after one of its flights was intercepted by a fighter jet and forced to divert to Minsk while en route to Vilnius in Lithuania yesterday (May 23).

Boeing 737
The four-year-old airframe - seen here at Gdańsk airport in 2019 - seats 189 passengers. Wikimedia Commons/Andrzej Otrębski

Aviation regulators and governments have condemned the act while the International Civil Aviation Organisation said it was “strongly concerned” by the apparent forced landing and that this “could be in violation of the Chicago Convention”.

The flight

The jet, SP-RSM (c/n 44791), was flying Flight FR4978 between Athens and the Lithuanian capital. The route took the aircraft through Bulgarian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Belarusian airspace.

flight map
The flight path took the jet through Bulgarian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Belarusian airspace. Great Circle Mapper

Around 60 miles from its destination – while still in Belarusian airspace – it’s believed the twinjet was intercepted by a fighter aircraft and informed of a security threat involving a bomb.

FR24 map
The aircraft was heading in a northerly direction before it made a near 180 degree turn away from the Lithuanian border. Flightradar24

Shortly thereafter, the crew squawked 7700 – the code used for emergencies – and began to turn away from its destination towards Minsk.

According to a statement released by Ryanair, once on the ground, passengers were offloaded while security checks could be completed by local authorities. A Belarusian dissident, Roman Protasevich, and his partner were then arrested.

After seven hours on the ground, the jet departed Minsk on a 40-minute leg to Vilnius where it landed safely.

The reaction

Michael O’Leary, the CEO of the carrier, labelled the incident as a “state-sponsored hijacking” and said that Ryanair is debriefing its crew “who did a phenomenal job to get that aircraft and almost all the passengers out of Minsk after six hours”.

The airline boss added: “It appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his travelling companion… we believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission called the acts of the Belarusian regime “outrageous and illegal” and said they will have consequences.

She added: “Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.”

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said the Biden Administration “strongly condemns” the regime’s “brazen and shocking” act to divert the commercial flight. He demanded an international investigation into the events of yesterday concluding that the US “stands with the people of Belarus”.

Today, Grant Shapps, the UK’s transport secretary revealed that he has instructed British carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace “in order to keep passengers safe”. The minister has also suspended Belavia’s – the country’s flag carrier – operating permit.