Will AirTanker Operate The UK Rwanda Deportation Flights?

Will AirTanker Operate The UK Rwanda Deportation Flights?
Photo sourced from AirTanker website.

Over the last few days, AirTanker has been named by pressure groups and journalists as the carrier that may operate the UK Rwanda Deportation Flights. Will they operate these controversial flights? 

There has been a lot of pressure applied onto the carrier and the UK Home Office to establish whether this is the case.

This feature will take a look at where we are up to so far, as well as what the next steps will be.  

Rwanda Deportation Flights: A Brief History… 

Will AirTanker Operate The UK Rwanda Deportation Flights?
The Privilege Style Boeing 767 was first used for these attempted rwanda deportation flights. photo credit: harrison Rowe/aviationSource

Before we take a look into the allegations made against AirTanker, let’s take a look back at the history of these Rwanda Deportation flights so far.  

Rewind back to 2022. The UK Government unveiled a policy to begin deporting refugees to Rwanda as a deterrent to stop the high level of persons coming into the UK.  

This policy has caused significant controversy over the last two years within the country, over concerns of human rights. 

By June of that year, Spanish carrier Privilege Style was contracted by the UK Government to operate the first flights.  

The Government began boarding the first set of refugees onto the Boeing 767, with UK media broadcasting this live as it was happening.  

Then, as the refugees were boarding, they were then quickly deboarding. Pressure groups and lawyers were in the courts, trying to get them off the plane before it departed to Kigali.  

Via an 11th hour ruling, the aircraft was prevented by the European Court of Human Rights obligations from transporting the refugees to Rwanda.  

The Path to Appeal…

Will AirTanker Operate The UK Rwanda Deportation Flights?
The Privilege Style Boeing 767 was first used for these attempted rwanda deportation flights. Photo Credit: Anna Zvereva from Tallinn, Estonia, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

From there, the UK Government began the process of appealing the ruling with the Court of Appeal. 

This was also found to be unlawful under the Court of Appeal by June 2023. 

The court ruled that the plan was unlawful because it was not compatible with the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). 

Specifically, the court found that the plan would expose asylum seekers to a real risk of inhuman and degrading treatment in Rwanda. 

By November 2023, the appeal by the UK Government following that ruling was taken to the Supreme Court. 

However, the outcome was the same.

It was marked as unlawful.

They found Rwanda to not be a safe third country for the UK Government to send asylum seekers to.  

By January 2024, a policy paper was released by the Government dubbed the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill.

This aimed to respond to the Supreme Court’s concerns about the safety of Rwanda for refugees.  

This bill has not come without it’s challenges, however. Back in March, the UK Government suffered five defeats in the House of Lords over the Rwanda Bill. 

The House of Lords made several changes to the bill.

This included allowing “courts to overturn the changes when the bill returns to the House of Commons, as per the BBC.  

It is understood that the bill has now been sent back to the House of Commons.

This will be deliberated and voted on again on April 15, just next week.  

Where We Are Now…

Will AirTanker Operate The UK Rwanda Deportation Flights?
Aldo Bidini (GFDL 1.2 http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html or GFDL 1.2 http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html), via Wikimedia Commons

More information is being circled amongst journalists that AirTanker may be the airline that will operate these Rwanda Deportation flights.  

Anushka Asthana at ITV mentioned that a source told her that AirTanker are considering again whether to operate these flights. 

The choice of airline operating these Rwanda Deportation flights has also remained contentious in the context of negative PR.  

Originally, back in 2022 after the initial failed attempt, four airlines had confirmed that they would not operate these flights. 

These are: 

  • Titan Airways 
  • AirTanker 
  • Privilege Style 
  • Wamos Air 

Titan Airways has confirmed to AviationSource that they will not be operating these flights full stop.  

We also reached out to AirTanker, Privilege Style & Wamos Air.  

At the time of publication, all three carriers did not respond to our queries. If and when they do respond, we will update this article with their comments.  

Furthermore, AviationSource approached the MOD, the Home Office and the UK CAA for a comment.  

Both the MOD & CAA referred us to the Home Office. The Home Office has not responded to our queries at this time.  

On top of this, even the state airline of Rwanda, RwandAir, has rejected requests to operate these flights.

AirTanker has come into the limelight because of their close collaboration with the UK Government through the Royal Air Force.  

Pressure Within Government vs. The Outside World…

Will AirTanker Operate The UK Rwanda Deportation Flights?
Paul Crouch – RAF Brize Norton Photographic Section, OGL v1.0OGL v1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As per i News, the carrier has a 27-year contract with the RAF maintaining and operating 14 Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft, with the RAF flights being crewed by the army branch’s own staff. 

Such pressure over using these aircraft has also become stronger following MP calls to use the RAF for these flights.  

A Government spokesperson said the following on the flights to the media outlet, without mentioning which company: 

“We have robust operational plans in place to get flights off the ground to Rwanda in spring.” 

AirTanker has been rather suspicious in their reluctance to respond to the over 20,000 queries sent to them in the wake of this with no response. 

On top of this, most contact methods with the exception of their media email address has been removed.

Freedom from Torture, a pressure group strongly involved in the saga of Rwanda Deportation Flights, has once again applied the pressure again on AirTanker.  

From calling their CEO to showing an email from June 2022 initially confirming no plans to operate these flights, the pressure group is exposing their reluctance to reply to any queries whatsoever.  

Natasha Tsangarides, the Associate Director of Advocacy at Freedom from Torture said the following to AviationSource on this: 

“The UK Government’s Rwanda plan is inhumane and deeply shameful. We’re calling on the airline AirTanker to say no to this dirty deal and not profit from refugees’ pain.” 

“These are men, women and children fleeing torture and other unimaginable horrors and they deserve our compassion and protection.” 

“It’s not too late for airlines to choose a different path and not be complicit in this ‘cash for humans’ deal.” 

Safety Concerns Over The Flights

Will AirTanker Operate The UK Rwanda Deportation Flights?
Rob Hodgkins, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In recent times, public sentiment has seen a turning of the tide against commercial airline operators who undertook such flights.

The fallout in terms of public backlash and the loss of customers has seen airlines reluctant to participate.

Public concerns have centred around the human rights aspect of such flights. However, there is perhaps another dimension of concern.

To date, the question of air safety of such operations does not receive a similar level of scrutiny. 

Specifics of onboard security procedures remain closely guarded.

However, it is known that a substantial number of detainees onboard such flights are transported in restraints.

This typically takes the form of a waist restraint belt which greatly restricts the wearer’s movement. 

Carrying a large number of physically restrained passengers raises questions as to how emergency procedures can be efficiently managed.

For example, how quickly can the flight crew evacuate large numbers of movement impaired passengers in the event of fire, especially if AirTanker do operate these Rwanda deportation flights?

The aviation industry standard for evacuating passengers of a commercial airliner in the event of a fire is 90 seconds. 

Presumably the operator undertaking removal flights will have conducted or sighted a risk management assessment and evaluation of inflight emergency handling procedures. 

Case Study: 2018 Deportation Flight in the UK…

A 2018 assessment report conducted by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, who observed a deportation flight, raised concerns with regards to the number of persons restrained. 

On the flight observed, 80 escort staff removed 23 people to 3 European countries aboard an Airbus A320.

The report raised concerns about the use of restrictive restraints.

It noted that all 23 detainees were placed in waist restraint belts for the duration of the flight. They effectively remained in restraints until final disembarkation. 

The report observed that after take-off, some belts were moved from the secure position, which clamps the wearer’s hands to their waist. 

This perhaps raises a red flag with respect to passenger safety.

One pertinent question is, how does a passenger with their hands clamped to their waist assume the brace position in the event of a crash? 

It also raises questions as to whether specific safety briefings are provided to those physically impaired passengers.  

Does the degree of secrecy which typically surrounds these contentious flight operations mean that assessments of operator procedures and those of the escort service provider are inadequately addressed? 

This will all need to be addressed by AirTanker if they are doing these Rwanda deportation flights.

All Eyes on the Bill Passing Next Week…

Adrian Pingstone, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Regardless which airline may be contracted to operate these flights, all eyes will be on whether the Rwanda Bill, which includes deportation flights, will be passed next week.  

If the bill is passed, then the UK Government will move forward and get the first flight set up.  

Within that, information surrounding which airline is being contracted to operate these flights will remain evident.  

Through the use of technology and flight tracking, this is how it will become somewhat evident, especially mixed in with live news broadcasters who will no doubt see the flights take off.  

But for now, all eyes will now turn to the House of Commons, who will vote on whether the Rwanda Bill, which includes the greenlight for deportation flights, will go ahead.  


Photo Credit: AirTanker.

It remains clear that as long as AirTanker continues not to respond to calls over the Rwanda flights, the suspicion will rise.  

Looking ahead, all eyes will be on whether such information will be revealed or not.  

If the controversial bill is passed, then we will no doubt see who has been contracted to operate these flights. 

Concerns over safety of the refugees remain, both on the air safety side, but on the more social side as well.  

Pressure continues to mount, with all eyes on which side will prevail next week.  

Article produced by James Field, with contributions from Len Varley.

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