EU sanctions cripple Belarus airlines

Photo: EPA

The EU sanctions that followed the forced grounding of the Ryanair airplane in Belarus delivered a heavy blow over the plans of Minsk to upgrade the country’s state airline, Reuters reported. An airplane of the low-cost carrier Ryanair was forced to land last week in Minsk en route to Lithuania. The local police arrested an opposition journalist who was on board of the airplane. The European Union slapped the hijacking and imposed sanctions including a ban for Belarus airplanes to fly over EU territory.

The international response to the grounding of a Ryanair jet in Belarus and arrest of a dissident on the flight has delivered a heavy blow to state-run airline Belavia and its expansion plans. Only last month Belavia took delivery of a new Boeing 737 MAX as part of its strategy to offer more transit flights via Belarusian capital Minsk.

Belavia is the only airline in the ex-Soviet economy of 9.5 million people. It was emerging bruised but ambitious from a Coved-19 pandemic that cut its passenger traffic last year to 1.7 million people, down more than 58% from 2019. This month it reported a 2020 net loss of $36 million, but said it was securing new demand from people travelling to and from Europe via Minsk. It listed routes from Vilnius to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris and London. All those routes are now closed. Belavia says it has been banned from flying to Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic, France, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Italy, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The list could grow. Ukraine also announced it would ban Belarusian aviation from its airspace. The Belarusian capital has become a popular transit stop for Ukrainians and Russians traveling between their nations since direct flights were banned after their relations plunged into acrimony in 2014.

Belavia accrued significant debts as it built up its fleet of 30 planes, half of which are leased.

At the end of last year Belavia reported total debt of about $400 million, including leasing obligations of more than $220 million. Part of those obligations are with Air Lease Corporation, having signed a contract in July 2018 for five Boeing 737 MAX jets. Belavia, which was founded in 1996 two years after authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko came to power, employed 2,100 people at the end of 2020.

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