Background

Globally, we are witnessing a rise in civil disorder as countries struggle to recover from the pandemic. Discontent over the economy, the impacts of the war in Ukraine as well as certain political decisions have seen many take to the streets – and other public places – in protest. Europe has seen widespread strike action and demonstrations, with more planned in the coming months. In countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan, prolonged unrest where almost daily protests have occurred. In other countries, such as Kazakhstan, unrest was triggered by a political decision relating to fuel prices and escalated quickly, with widespread unrest impacting multiple cities and requiring security, and sometimes military, intervention.  

Osprey’s analysis team closely monitors global social unrest and delivers updates and analysis via the Osprey system as well as our alerts. The team focuses on highlighting the potential impacts of unrest on airport operations, but also examines the wider impacts on airlines operating in a country facing instability, such as potential effects on crewmembers overnighting in the country.  

Osprey:Explore line graph showing social unrest between September 2019 and April 2022
Osprey:Explore line graph showing social unrest between September 2019 and April 2022

Periods of unrest can see protesters block buildings, main roads and airports. While governments and local authorities do look to ensure that aviation facilities are kept secure during periods of unrest, a deterioration in the security environment can quickly overwhelm the authorities’ ability to respond, putting airports, aircraft and crew in danger, whether they are airside or landside. For protesters, the disruption of air operations and the publicity that comes with it can be attractive in terms of raising the profile of a cause. However, the disruption of air transport can quickly isolate a government, and a prolonged failure to secure aviation facilities may undermine its legitimacy.  

For operators, civil disorder – whether it is a small protest over a new runway, widespread demonstrations calling for economic reform or a violent internal conflict – poses an acute risk to flights, facilities and crew on the ground. Osprey data relating to Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan demonstrates that increases in instances of civil unrest can correspond to an increase in aviation security and safety incidents. Indeed, even small protests can impact access to and safety at airports. In some cases, violent unrest can result in a very real danger to the lives of crew, aircraft operations and reputations. Between December 2021 and June 2022, civil unrest in Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan posed significant threats to aviation. 

Sri Lanka  

Osprey:Explore graphs showing aviation safety, security and social unrest incidents in Sri Lanka between December 2021 and June 2022
Osprey:Explore graphs showing aviation safety, security and social unrest incidents in Sri Lanka between December 2021 and June 2022

During the unrest in Sri Lanka in the first half of 2022, the nation’s main airport, Bandaranaike International Airport (VCBI/CMB), has seen noticeable disruption due to a variety of causes. As the unrest grew between late March and early April, protesters caused increasing disruption to the facility, with departing passengers being forced to walk to the airport as a result of the unrest. This saw additional security deployed to the Katunayake area of the city of Negombo, where Bandaranaike Airport is located. However, the disruption continued, with passengers being told to ensure they had passports and boarding passes in order to access the facility.  

The peak of the activity occurred on 9 May, when social media reports highlighted that, despite the increased security, demonstrators were setting up illegal checkpoints on the main access roads to the airport. At these illegal checkpoints, protesters stopped vehicles and examined the passports of those looking to access the airport in order to prevent politicians escaping the country. Police, with the support of the army, were quick to disperse the checkpoints as a state of emergency was issued. However, despite the emergency declaration, in Nittambuwa, a town 35km (22 miles) northeast of the capital Colombo, a ruling party politician was beaten to death by an angry mob. 

Kazakhstan 

The security situation in Kazakhstan deteriorated rapidly during unrest in January. The unrest started in the western city of Atyrau and the wider Mangystau region on 2 January. These protests then spread across the country on 3 and 4 January before the Kazakh government announced, on 5 January, that protesters – which they termed “terrorists” – had seized Almaty Airport (UAAA/ALA), the country’s busiest hub, claiming that they had stormed the facility, including the premises where small arms were kept.  

Osprey:Explore graphs showing aviation safety, security and social unrest incidents in Kazakhstan between December 2021 and June 2022
Osprey:Explore graphs showing aviation safety, security and social unrest incidents in Kazakhstan between December 2021 and June 2022

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev added that five aircraft, including “foreign planes”, which were parked at the installation were “hijacked”, though no evidence of the seizure of aircraft has emerged since the unrest. Eyewitnesses also reported that a taxiing aircraft had to abort its take-off as a result of the airport being seized by protesters, with passengers forced to stay on the aircraft for 12 hours. 

As a result of the storming of the facility, two soldiers were killed, and a number of small arms were taken by demonstrators. Operations at the airport were suspended, with inbound flights forced to divert. The airport remained closed until 14 January as Russian paratroopers were deployed to help “stabilise” the country at the request of the Kazakh president under the auspices of the regional military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).    

Outlook 

The risk to aviation from civil disorder cannot be understated. In the above cases, the unrest occurred in places where international flights were operating; Sri Lanka is an important tourist destination and Almaty Airport is one of the busiest airports in the former Soviet Union, with more than 6 million passengers a year. With many other countries facing similar unrest, monitoring the key trigger points for violent discontent and preparing contingency plans for flights and staff in the country is vital, regardless of destination. 

With the war in Ukraine set to have a long-term impact globally, increases in food insecurity and energy/fuel prices are putting governments under pressure. As such, further unrest should be expected in 2022 as many countries face an acute cost-of-living crisis. Indeed, there are similarities between the civil unrest mentioned above and situations developing in countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey. Osprey will continue to monitor these and provide our clients with in-depth analysis and advice. 

About the author

Sean Patrick Aviation Security Analyst

Sean is an Aviation Security Analyst. His role is to assess risks and trends, looking at how ongoing and one-time events can impact the security of operators globally, with a special interest in aviation security in Africa and Asia.

Prior to joining Osprey, Sean worked for many years in the travel and security industry, alongside government agencies. He also holds a master’s degree with distinction in Intelligence and Security Studies from Brunel University.

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