An industry group focused on international trade is warning that air and rail freight transportation could be negatively impacted if tensions escalate between Western allies and Belarus over the forced landing of a passenger jet and the arrest of a dissident journalist last month.

Airline industry officials say the impact on operations from changing flight patterns over Belarus has been minimal so far. But the situation could change if new sanctions are imposed and Belarus retaliates. 

The government of Belarus, led by strongman Alexander Lukashenko, on May 23 intercepted the Ryanair flight over Balerusian airspace on its journey from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania. 

Last week, the European Union banned Belarusian airlines from using EU airspace and called for EU-based carriers to avoid overflights to Belarus. 

The United States, EU, Canada and the United Kingdom are developing sanctions targeted against key members of Lukashenko’s regime and several state-owned companies. The sanctions will likely involve travel bans and freezing of their assets in those countries, but could also restrict travel and transportation. U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher said Tuesday the sanctions will be imposed soon in response to the Ryanair incident, as well as long-standing concerns over human rights and corruption. The EU had already punished dozens of Belarusian entities and individuals for what it considers repressive actions even before the arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich.

Belarus is a key artery for East-West transport. A large number of flights to China, Japan and South Korea regularly fly over Belarusian airspace and rerouting those flights will increase flight times and reduce cargo capacity to some degree, the International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations (FIATA) said in an alert on Friday. 

If sanctions extend to the closure of land routes, “major disruptions are expected to occur in the supply chain,” FIATA said.

Belarus has an important network of roads, which includes international transit corridors linking the EU with Russia, Central Asia and China. They also connect the Baltic states with the Black Sea. 

“Belarus is also a key rail corridor, and interruptions to this route may have significant impacts on the Eurasian Landbridge, as the corridor passing through Belarus takes 80% of the total rail freight capacity between Europe and Asia,” FIATA said. 

Any dispute could also involve Russia, Lukashenko’s benefactor, and make it difficult to reroute planes and trains through its territory.

FIATA urged logistics providers to remain on alert for potential disruptions and to make contingency plans for bypassing any blocked routes.

Airlines say impact on operations from the situation in Belarus has been minimal.

“At current traffic levels the implications are limited and will be manageable. If traffic ramps up this will become more of a problem, particularly for some flights between Asia and Europe where extended flight times could result in payload restrictions,” Katherine Kaczynska, a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association, said in an email.

Air France/KLM flights to and from Asia are forced to fly about five minutes longer to navigate around Belarus airspace, said cargo spokesman Gerald Roelfzema.

Logistics companies that organize intermodal block trains between China and Europe also say there have not been any interruptions in service to date. 

NATO Summit

Meanwhile, air cargo flights are expected to experience delays next week because of the NATO Summit, the operator of Brussels Airport said in a notice. The cargo terminals will be temporarily closed at various times, including for the U.S. President Joe Biden on Sunday evening and his departure on Tuesday afternoon. A number of feeder roads to the airport will also be closed.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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