KLM stops use of Belarus airspace after Dutch PM pressure over Ryanair “hijacking”
Update, 10 p.m., 24 May 2021: KLM responded to say it will not use Belarusian airspace for the time being.
KLM will temporarily halt its use of Belarusian airspace, the airline confirmed to broadcaster NOS. It made the decision in response to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte saying that he wanted the airline to avoid the airspace because authorities there ordered a Ryanair flight to land under the pretense of a bomb threat. It then used the opportunity to arrest an opposition journalist, something which Rutte referred to as a “hijacking” on social media.
The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was over Belarus when the flight crew was notified that there was a threat made against the plane. Belarus scrambled a fighter jet to escort the passenger jet to Minsk. Once on the ground, passengers were taken off the flight and opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend were arrested. He has been living in Lithuania, and was on vacation in Greece.
“Belarus must immediately release Roman Protasevich,” Rutte said on Twitter. “Together with other member states the Netherlands will be proposing sanctions. These must be imposed on those responsible for the hijacking of the Ryanair aircraft. The EU needs to send a clear and powerful message.”
“We think that this arrest of Protasevich, and it seems also his partner, that this merits a strong reaction from the whole of the EU,” Rutte said in calling for European sanctions against Belarus, its leader Alexander Lukashenko “and his cronies”, and its State-owned companies.
Rutte: Passenger jets should not fly over Belarus
“It is clear to us that the Belarusian authorities are very unreliable in the management of the airspace,” Rutte told reporters on Monday evening. “Saying that there is a bomb on board to land a plane is dangerous.”
Earlier in the day, KLM said that it had completed a risk assessment and would continue with its normal operations. It reversed that decision after Rutte’s comments were publicized. The airline uses routes over the northeastern European country for flights to and from South Asia and Southeast Asia. Flights between Amsterdam and either Kyiv or Moscow travel just along the border of Belarus.
Rutte said that he was not able to force airlines like KLM, or its subsidiary Transavia, to avoid Belarusian airspace, but he would definitely pressure them over the issue. French president Emmanuel Macron was also considering banning French aircraft from flying over the country.
The Dutch State owns 9.34 percent of parent company Air France - KLM. The French government owns a 28.6 percent stake.
The Netherlands is not alone in calling for airlines to abandon Belarusian airspace. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the United Kingdom and Sweden have all done the same. The United Kingdom has also banned Belavia from landing planes in the UK, a move which Dutch politician Sjoerd Sjoersma also suggested for the Netherlands.