On May 23, Ryanair Flight 4978 was subject to a bomb threat in Belarussian airspace and escorted to Minsk by a MIG-29 fighter jet where opposition activist and journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested along with his girlfriend. U.S. President Joe Biden condemned the incident “in the strongest possible terms” while President of the E.U. Commission Ursula von der Leyen described “the hijacking of the Ryanair plane by the Belarus regime as an attack on democracy”. The alarming events in Minsk have served as a reminder that transiting some portions of the world’s airspace carry inherent risk.
While such cases of “air piracy” have proven rare down through the years, the Ryanair incident has striking similarities to another forced diversion that occurred in July 1971 when a BOAC flight carrying two men associated with an abortive coup d’état in Sudan was ordered to land in Benghazi, Libya, by the Gaddafi regime. The two men were subsequently handed over to Sudan where they were immediately executed. More recently, the shootdown of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 over Tehran in 2020 and the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Eastern Ukraine in 2014 have shown that geopolitical tensions and conflict also pose a risk to air passengers.
Further high-profile cases down through the years include the shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655 by USS Vincennes in 1988 that resulted in 290 deaths as well as Korean Air Lines Flight 007 that was brought down by a Soviet SU-15 fighter jet in 1983, killing all 269 people onboard. Given the concern generated by the catastrophes in 2020 and 2014 as well as the Belarus incident, which parts of the globe are the most dangerous for air traffic today? The majority of airspace safety alerts are released by the U.S. (FAA), U.K. (DFT), Germany (BMVI) and France (DGAC) and they are amalgamated by the Conflict Zone and Risk Database across three levels of risk classification.
Level 1 is the first and most severe classification which involves a moderate level of risk where airlines are strongly advised to avoid the airspace entirely. It is labeled as such due to highly unstable current events on the ground and the possibility of factions possessing MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems) or other surface-to-air missiles. Currently, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Yemen fall under this classification. A level 2 risk classification involves assessed warnings for certain airspace sections or altitudes with Afghanistan, Belarus, North Korea and Ukraine among the countries within that bracket. Finally, level 3 is a state of caution where a security review should be conducted prior to flight operations taking place.
*Click below to enlarge (charted by Statista)