Will their reputation suffer?
EU leaders have called it a hijacking, others are describing it as air piracy when Belarus scrambled a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to force Ryanair Flight FR4978 to land at Minsk airport. The flight had been traveling from Athens to Vilnius when it was suddenly diverted.
Belarus authorities claimed there was a bomb on board the aircraft. The actual purpose of the mission was to arrest Roman Protasevich, a long-time critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Western politicians are talking tough, and look set to introduce further sanctions against the Lukashenko regime.
But what of Ryanair, the airline involved? What is their duty of care to their passengers in these extraordinary circumstances? How should they best preserve their reputation and not become known for being, an albeit unwilling partner, in a political abduction? No pilot is going to ignore a fighter jet on their tail, but some have been critical of the airline’s crisis management response.
Initially they put out a bland statement saying: ‘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. 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 Ryanair’s control.’
The press release offered little comfort to passengers who were unsurprisingly terrified at the turn of events and made no mention of the arrest of Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. Those who witnessed the arrest of Protasevich described him as looking ‘super scared’. This immediately provoked a response on Twitter.
shame on you. shame. your passenger was kidnapped at gunpoint and you did nothing and don’t even acknowledge it. shameful to see that the life on a non-EU passenger means nothing to your company
So here is your press release without a single mention of the fact that you were unlawfully diverted to land other than in the destination your passengers had paid for – so that a journalist, hostile to the regime was removed by security forces.
Several other passengers were also absent when the plane finally departed for Vilnius and there is suspicion these were Belarus KGB agents who had been shadowing Protasevich. Presumably their job was done.
It may be understandable that Ryanair wanted to distance itself from the political aspects of the event, but many will find it extraordinary that the company failed to mention any of the missing passengers.
Perhaps the airline reacted with undue haste, without considering their response. This morning Ryanair CEO, Michael O’Leary has been extremely visible describing the event as: “a state-sponsored hijacking”.
He acknowledged it had been an extremely frightening event for both passengers and crew who were held under armed guard and had their bags searched.
He said: “It was clear that the intent of the Belarusian authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion. We believe some KGB agents were offloaded from the aircraft as well.”
Defending the firm’s initial press release he said the airline had been instructed by European security authorities not to describe the event in detail pending their own investigations. He said Ryanair’s initial statement on Sunday night stuck to the basic facts.
Whether this incident will have a lasting impact on Ryanair remains to be seen, but many will see their initial response as lacking in empathy, not to mention the basic facts as understood by those on the ground. One of their aircraft was illegally herded towards a destination that was not on the flight manifest. Some of the passengers were arrested while other just disappeared. Passengers were extracted from their care and initially they had nothing to say about it.
It will be interesting to see whether consumer groups take Ryanair to task over this. Airlines have a duty of care to their passengers and in light of these events, Ryanair’s crisis response has been uncertain and not what should be expected of an international airline.