NEW YORK – Aviation industry expert Bryan Del Monte, former deputy director for policy development and international issues in the Office of Detainee Affairs of the United States Department of Defense, spoke with The National Herald concerning the May 23 diverting of a Ryanair flight on its way from Athens to Lithuania's capital of Vilnius following a bomb threat and how the incident might affect tourism and air travel.
According to a previous report in TNH, a Belarusian fighter jet forced the pilot of the Ryanair flight to land so that Raman Pratasevich – who had appeared at the Delphi Forum in Greece – could be detained. Pratasevich, a blogger, faces up to 15 years in prison in Belarus for criticizing Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, called Europe's Last Dictator.
When asked how this incident might affect air travel to countries which rely on tourism, like Greece, Del Monte told TNH, “I wouldn’t think there would be a dramatic impact since most countries that are relying on tourism are by and large open and free societies that are generally restrained in their use of force.”
“The treaties and agreements that exist are there to ensure the free flowing of people, goods, services, etc.,” he continued. “Most of us want little restrictions in flying and traveling around the world. The vast majority of nation-states agree with this position and adhere to the terms of freedom of navigation and ‘open skies.’ I wouldn’t expect that to change.”
“What makes the Ryanair incident serious is that when transgression of international norms and laws occur, there need to be consequences beyond people throwing up their hands going, ‘Well that’s Russia for ya!’ or the like,” Del Monte noted. “Transgressions of international law need to be met with costs serious enough to imprint on the transgressors that it wasn’t worth what they did.”
“As my old boss Donald Rumsfeld would say – weakness is provocative,” he said. “That’s the challenge here. What Belarus and Russia did shouldn’t be something that they just ‘get away with’ and there are no economic or diplomatic consequences.”
“For the vast majority of countries out there – they’re following international norms, they’re welcoming air flights over their territory and to their airports, there’s little for them to fear,” Del Monte told TNH.
When asked if Americans should be concerned about traveling by air to other destinations because of this incident, Del Monte pointed out that “most Americans would have little to be concerned about while flying internationally, especially between any country that is generally allied with the United States. The Department of State monitors travel risks closely and publishes a country by country briefing for travelers about risks traveling to or through various countries around the world. In general, I would be unconcerned about being stopped or having a flight intercepted over the airspace of any U.S. ally.”
He continued, “Greece is a long term ally of the United States and is a NATO partner. I’d have absolutely no concerns about going to Greece from the U.S. I would have every expectation that all of the countries along the flight route would abide by the Open Skies protocols. I wouldn’t be concerned.”
“Also understand that Russia’s activity is largely about squelching political dissent and jailing or killing their critics,” Del Monte noted. “If I were a critic of the Russian regime, then any aircraft that flew over Russian airspace, or former Soviet satellites, I’d be concerned about. If I was an American reporter who was critical of Russia flying from Japan to Greece, over Russian or Belarusian airspace, I think after last week I’d have to wonder if the plane wouldn’t be interdicted.”
“And that’s the problem… it’s why we need to deal with this while the Russians/Belarusians have their hand in the cookie jar,” he said. “What they did was a major challenge of the Open Skies norms and agreements. It shouldn’t be something they just get away with.”
“Now, the response is economic and diplomatic – but it needs to be clear, it needs to be unified, and it needs to have bite so that their action isn’t costless,” Del Monte concluded.