Globally, the impacts of civil unrest are increasing; in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing socioeconomic pressures are causing high inflation, recession fears and political instability. Many countries have seen protest action and prolonged bouts of civil unrest. Sri Lanka, for example, has struggled throughout 2022 with large-scale protests that, while initially peaceful, have escalated into violence and clashes. As 2023 approaches, many other countries face increased socioeconomic difficulties, protest action and prolonged unrest.  
 
These issues will not be restricted to developing countries; Europe, Latin America and Asia are all at increased risk. Given these challenges, aviation operators can expect disruption that will vary from minor flight schedule alterations to very real threats to staff, facilities and aircraft. While usually well secured, aviation facilities and crew hotels may be directly or indirectly impacted by unrest, especially in the event protests escalate into violence. Monitoring and understanding this issue, therefore, is going to be vital in the coming months and into 2023.  

Socioeconomic issues fuelling unrest

Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, there has been an acute increase in the price of food, largely due to the fact that the two main combatants, Russia and Ukraine, represent around 30% of the world’s supply of wheat. The conflict has also prompted a sharp rise in natural gas prices, driving up the cost of ammonia fertiliser. This is resulting in a rapid increase in the price of synthetic fertiliser, which is the bedrock of food production globally. These concerns have prompted the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, to highlight that such price increases are “hitting the poorest the hardest and planting the seeds for political instability and unrest around the globe”.   

On 5 September, the Financial Times highlighted that nearly every major economy, with the notable exceptions of China and Japan, is seeing a more than 5% increase in inflation rates. Many smaller economies are faring much worse; Nigeria is seeing inflation rates of more than 19%, Egypt 13%, Brazil 10%, and Poland 15%. In some countries, these rates are approaching or experiencing runaway inflation, with Pakistan seeing increases of 27%, Ethiopia 33%, and Turkey more than 80%. Without a significant easing in the prices for basic goods and energy, the levels of inflation and the overall economic situation globally is expected to worsen, with increasing fears of a global recession. 

As this situation evolves, the continued economic pressure will spark unrest. Such unrest in turn puts pressure on governments to resolve the issues. In Sri Lanka, discontent over the mismanagement of the economy – which triggered an economic crisis involving severe inflation, blackouts and acute shortages of fuel and essential goods – triggered protests in March 2022. These protests continued to escalate as the situation worsened, with the country requiring aid from neighbouring India.  

Aviation impacts

Osprey data highlights a significant relationship between social unrest and aviation safety and security levels. High levels of unrest are linked to a deterioration in the operating environment; by placing significant pressure on police and security personnel, opportunities for criminal elements to evade security may increase, resulting in increased numbers of security and safety incidents. 

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

The travel industry as a whole is acutely impacted during periods of political uncertainty and civil unrest. Prolonged bouts of instability have resulted in the deterioration of a country’s overall situation, requiring operators to take measures to ensure the landside safety of crew and even cancel flights due to government warnings and collapsing demand. Tourists are unlikely to book holidays to locations experiencing unrest, favouring safer destinations. Following the unrest in Chile in 2019, tourism in the country fell by more than 20%. Tunisia’s tourism industry is yet to return to pre-Arab Spring levels. Foreign governments also warned against travel to Sri Lanka in 2022, and many airlines cancelled or reduced scheduled flights.  
 
In addition, aviation facilities present a symbolic and extremely visible target for protesters. Blocking or occupying an aviation facility almost guarantees publicity and media coverage while also reducing the legitimacy of governments that are unable to secure facilities against such activity. This makes the disruption of air transport a primary objective for protesters who intend to force a government to negotiate over an issue or resign. For example, during a bout of acute unrest in Kazakhstan at the beginning of 2022, protesters stormed Almaty Airport (UAAA/ALA) and allegedly occupied aircraft. During #EndSARS protests in Nigeria in 2020, protesters disrupted flights by blocking Lagos’ Murtala Muhammed International Airport (DNMM/LOS).  
 
Protests targeting aviation facilities may pose a direct threat to airline crew and assets. For example, in Papua New Guinea in 2018, supporters of a losing candidate in an election stopped a Dash 8 aircraft from departing during a protest before setting it alight. Additionally, during unrest in Hong Kong over the Special Administrative Region’s status, Hong Kong International Airport (VHHH/HKG) was stormed by protesters. This unrest started as peaceful sit-ins before escalating into mass street protests that saw violence, excessive use of force by security personnel and damage. As a result, the airport authority cancelled numerous flights. Similar incidents occurred in Thailand in 2008 during anti-government protests, when demonstrators stormed the country’s new main international airport, Suvarnabhumi Airport (VTBS/BKK), forcing its closure.  

Widespread social unrest can quickly degrade the security environment in a country. For operators with aircraft, crew and travellers in a country, such degradation in the security environment can be a major concern. Airports can quickly become inaccessible as protesters block streets or violent unrest makes it impossible to safely navigate through cities. In some cases, airport access can be completely blocked by demonstrators aiming to prevent politicians from escaping the country. Indeed, even legitimate checkpoints could deny travellers and crew access to a facility through fear of allowing in demonstrators. 
 
In March 2022, operators were required to cancel flights at the last minute after protests in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, resulted in the main routes to/from Islamabad International Airport (OPIS/ISB) being blocked. The unrest was triggered by the country’s then Prime Minister Imran Khan being ousted following a no-confidence vote. Previously, in 2016, security forces opened fire on protesting Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) workers, killing two and injuring eight. Police used water cannons and teargas to keep the crowd from approaching Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport (OPKC/KHI) before shots were fired.

Outlook 

Research by consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft found that, out of 198 countries, 101 saw an increase in risk in their Civil Unrest Index (CUI) between Q2 and Q3, compared to only 42 where the risk decreased. In the coming months, large-scale protests are likely across the globe. Much of the unrest will focus on countries already struggling economically and politically. These middle-economy countries are likely to have already seen protests and political difficulties. For example, in Pakistan, where devastating floods have decimated communities and the rising cost of living is impacting everyone, the country is also battling a political crisis that has already prompted mass protests, including the blocking of streets and airports. In Sri Lanka, despite a complete change of government and a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the economic situation remains poor and further mass protests are likely in the coming months. 
 
Countries whose finances have been stretched during the COVID-19 pandemic will now struggle to react to political and environmental factors. Egypt, for example, has seen a large outflow of foreign funds and has a debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio of about 95%. Alongside food shortage concerns, the country has far exceeded its lending quota from the IMF and was required to enter a new deal in May 2022. Tunisia is another North African country likely to see economic hardship; with a budget deficit of nearly 10% and a large public sector wage bill, the country may also be forced to seek aid from the IMF. Similarly, Argentina is experiencing economic and currency issues, with the government likely to be forced to default, again.  
 
Such concerns even extend to major developed countries, which are not immune to the socioeconomic pressures that spark prolonged protests. Notably, fuelled by the Ukrainian conflict, Russia is withholding gas supplies, and energy prices have spiked in Europe. Many European countries are predicted to struggle to keep their lights on and warm their homes. The region has already seen an increase in political polarisation and economic stagnation coupled with high inflation as a result of fears over the rising costs. These factors have increased tensions, sparked industrial action and put pressure on the general population’s ability to pay for essentials.  
 
As we enter Q4 2022, the ongoing impacts of high energy prices in Europe and across the globe, as well as continued high prices of food and other goods, will see discontent increase. On 3 September, around 70,000 activists supporting both left- and right-wing parties took part in a rally in Prague to protest rising living costs. A survey by YouGov and the non-profit More in Common highlighted that those surveyed in France, Germany, Poland and the United Kingdom are worried that the current economic situation could fuel social unrest, protests and strikes. With many people struggling to cope and governments being forced to subsidise basic goods, further unrest is almost certain. 

Conclusion 

Only a significant reversal in the price of food and energy globally will begin to lower levels of civil unrest. Fears of a global recession and continued inflation will drive unrest and insecurity. Protests in a small city can quickly escalate and impact a country or as seen during the Arab Spring, a whole region. In the previously cited example in Kazakhstan in January 2022, unrest that initially started as peaceful protests in the country’s west quickly escalated and directly impacted the country’s largest international airport, leading to cancelled and rerouted flights and closure of the facility. It is vital that operators monitor protests – and their potential for escalation into violence – and prepare contingency plans for flights and staff, regardless of their location.  

Osprey will continue to monitor global social unrest and provide our clients with in-depth analysis and advice. For more on Osprey’s coverage of social unrest, please refer to our recent case study.

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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