Ryanair flight 4978 from Athens to Vilnius was forcibly diverted to Minsk while passing through Belarus airspace on Sunday, 23 May. The flight was 72 kilometers from Vilnius (VNO) when it made a 180 degree turn before diverting to Minsk at the behest of authorities in Belarus. The aircraft was allowed to depart about 7 hours after landing.
Ryanair 4978 was en route from Athens to Vilnius over Belarus when, according to Ryanair, “the crew were notified by Belarus ATC of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.” European leaders, including the president of Lithuania, have condemned the action as pretext to arrest journalist and activist Roman Protasevič, who was reportedly aboard the flight.
Ryanair Sun 737-800 SP-RSM departed Athens (ATH) at 07:29 UTC and entered Belarus airspace at 09:30. At 09:46 UTC the flight changed course and began diverting to Minsk. Two minutes later at 09:48 UTC, FR4978 began squawking 7700, the internationally recognized transponder code for “general emergency”. The aircraft landed in Minsk (MSQ) at 10:16. After 7 hours on the ground, the flight departed Minsk at 17:47 UTC and finally arrived in Vilnius (VNO) at 18:26.
Distances in context
FR4978 was just 72 kilometers from Vilnius airport (and 30 km from the Lithuanian border), but 183 km from Minsk when it began diverting. The total actual distance flown from the diversion point to landing in Minsk was 300 km. Additionally, the aircraft was still at cruising altitude at the time it was diverted, which is out of the ordinary, as flight history shows FR4978 normally beginning its descent into Vilnius approximately 177 km from VNO airport.
The diversion of Ryanair 4978 has been widely condemned by governments and international aviation authorities and trade associations. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) issued a statement:
ICAO is strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention. We look forward to more information being officially confirmed by the countries and operators concerned.
While the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global airline trade association, also condemned the actions, saying:
We strongly condemn any interference or requirement for landing of civil aviation operations that is inconsistent with the rules of international law. Details of the event with flightare not clear. A full investigation by competent international authorities is needed.
Full statement from Ryanair
“The crew on a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius today (23 May) were notified by Belarus ATC of a potential security threat on board and were instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.
The aircraft landed safely and passengers were offloaded while security checks were completed by local authorities.
Nothing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart together with passengers and crew after approx. 7hrs on the ground in Minsk…
The aircraft departed for Vilnius at 18:50hrs UK time (20:50hrs local time in Minsk) and landed safely at 19:25hrs (21:25hrs local time).
Ryanair has notified the relevant national and European safety and security agencies and we apologise sincerely to all affected passengers for this regrettable delay, which was outside of Ryanair’s control”.
ICAO completes fact finding report
ICAO announced on 17 January 2022 that it had completed its fact-finding report on Ryanair 4978. The report was sent to all ICAO member states, but not immediately made public. The ICAO Council will meet on 31 January to discuss any further action by international aviation regulators.
US charges Belarusian officials with aircraft piracy
On 20 January 2022, the United States charged four Belarusian government officials with aircraft piracy for forcibly diverting Ryanair flight 4978. The US was able to bring the charges because four of the passengers onboard the flight were US nationals. The charging documents for the first time lay out US version of how the flight was diverted. Those charged are either employees of the state air navigation service provider or state security services.
ICAO releases updated fact-finding report
ICAO released an updated report from its fact-finding investigation on 19 July 2022. The report includes a detailed timeline of events before and after the forced diversion of flight 4978.