Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary qualified the forced diversion of flight FR4978 by the Belarus regime as a “premeditated breach of all the international aviation rules.”
On May 23, 2021, Ryanair’s Boeing 737, registered as SP-RSM, operating flight FR4978 from Athens (ATH), Greece, to Vilnius (VNO), Lithuania, was intercepted by an armed Belarusian MiG -29 fighter jet. Upon landing in Minsk (MSQ), a passenger identified as Roman Protasevich, a journalist, was arrested by the KGB, the Belarusian security services.
In a hearing with the Transport Committee of the UK Parliament, O’Leary said that Minsk airport controllers had told Ryanair pilots that they had received “a credible threat that if the aircraft entered Lithuanian air space, or attempted to land at Vilnius airport, that a bomb on board would be detonated.”
In his conversation with Minsk air traffic control, the captain of the aircraft “repeatedly” asked to communicate with Ryanair’s operations control center in Warsaw, which was denied.
“Various excuses came back from Minsk ATC why they couldn’t reach us, [such as that] Ryanair weren’t answering the phone. All of which was completely untrue,” O’Leary told the members of Parliament.
The captain was not directly ordered to divert to Minsk but rather left with no other choice. “He asked for other alternative diversion airports. He was only given Minsk.”
Upon landing in the Belarusian capital, the flight crew was repeatedly asked to “confirm on video that they had voluntarily diverted to Minsk,” which they refused.
While O’Leary agreed that actions should be taken to condemn such action, he positioned himself against the current airspace ban affecting European airlines.
“We cannot have a situation whereby airlines, air travel, our customers and our citizens run the risk of being hijacked and diverted under false pretenses,” the CEO said. “But equally, far more UK citizens will be disrupted as a result of long haul flights between the UK and Asia for example now having to fly around Belarus or avoiding Belarusian airspace.”
Instead, O’Leary asked the European and the UK authorities to seek appropriate assurances from the Belarusian regime that this would not happen again.