Ambassador Sullenberger on the ICAO Council’s 1/31/22 Decision on Report into Ryanair Flight 4978 in Belarus Airspace on 23 May 2021

Statement of Ambassador Sullenberger on the ICAO Council’s January 31, 2022 Decision on the Report into Incident Involving Ryanair Flight 4978 in Belarus Airspace on 23 May 2021

The United States welcomes the decision of the ICAO Council based on the report of the ICAO Fact Finding Investigation Team (FFIT).  This is an important first step towards protecting international civil aviation from the type of unlawful interference identified in the FFIT’s report, and in holding to account those who engage in acts that undermine the trust between pilots and air traffic controllers.

Carefully cataloguing the many gaps and discrepancies in Belarus’s version of events, the FFIT report’s findings leave no doubt that Belarusian officials manufactured a false bomb threat to coerce the pilots of Ryanair Flight 4978 to land in Minsk for the purpose of detaining opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich, and his companion, Sofia Sapega.

Speaking as a long-time pilot and aviation safety professional, I am particularly troubled by the indications that Belarusian officials actively misled the crew of Ryanair Flight 4978 and deliberately provided incomplete information about the alleged threat.  Further, by not honoring the flight crew’s request to contact Ryanair’s operations center, Belarusian officials deprived the crew of a valuable resource to assess the credibility and urgency of the alleged threat.

Knowing well how a flight crew would react in these circumstances, it is clear that Belarusian officials exploited the crew’s professionalism, diligence, and dedication to the safety and security of their passengers.  The subterfuge and outright lies of Belarusian officials were precisely timed for maximum effect, forcing the flight crew of Ryanair Flight 4978 into a situation where the only viable option was landing at Minsk — all for the purpose of detaining, and jailing an independent journalist and his traveling companion.

By manipulating Ryanair Flight 4978’s flight crew, Belarusian officials put the passengers and crew at risk, contravened international aviation norms and shattered the essential bond of trust between air traffic controllers and pilots in that region.  In its pursuit of a political opponent flying from Greece to Lithuania, the Lukashenka regime created a dangerous precedent such that international flight crews might now reasonably question if they can rely on the air traffic control for accurate and reliable information and assistance.  We cannot yet know the full consequences of the Belarusian officials’ brazen act on the future safety and security of international civil aviation.

I appreciate the professional, impartial work of the ICAO Fact-Finding Investigation Team to date, and I look forward to the final report from the FFIT that provides an accurate and complete narrative of the forced diversion of Ryanair Flight 4978.  When the FFIT’s work is eventually done, the work will still not be complete for those of us who care about safe and secure global flight – we must continue to hold those who undermine aviation safety to account.  Nothing less than the safety and security of all who travel by air is at stake.