ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial, Military

Do We Really Need ICAO?

By William Reynish | March 1, 2000
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It’s still surprising. When aviation people—particularly those in the United States—discuss regulatory issues, one question often comes up: Why does the U.S. need the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)? After all, some Americans may ask, what has it done for us recently?

Skeptics point out that ICAO is an agency of the United Nations, where the United States usually gets "the short end of the stick." It often stands alone, protecting its interests against those of all the other countries. One nation, one vote, is the UN rule, which means in theory that the world’s smallest country, with maybe only a couple of airplanes, can cancel out the U.S. vote at ICAO and force the "aviation super power" to adopt policies and practices it doesn’t want.

Some claim, you already can see this in the subtle insertion of "foreign" standards, which replace well-proven U.S. practices developed over the years. Clear evidence of this, they say, is in the recently introduced new weather reporting and flight plan formats. In other words, the sentiment goes, since ICAO is a UN agency, anti-U.S. factions within it are busily working to somehow diminish U.S. aviation leadership and influence.

Perhaps these skeptics are the same folks who hold that an errant U.S. Navy missile destroyed TWA 800, or that a Bermuda-like Long Island Triangle caught John F. Kennedy Jr.’s Piper Saratoga, or that the U.S. Air Force still hides extra-terrestrial beings in Nevada. However, the real truth is that if ICAO did not exist, it would have to be quickly created to, among other things, assure the continuation of U.S. aviation leadership and influence.

Emphasis on Safety

Emphatically, however, this doesn’t mean the United States controls ICAO’s agenda. The UN body’s mandate is to set common technical and operational standards for aviation worldwide, with key emphasis on safety. More than in any other industry, perhaps, this commonality is vital to aviation. This probably explains why ICAO regulations have achieved wider international acceptance than those of any other UN body.

To achieve such acceptance, ICAO bases its rules on the best that the world has to offer. And, in that, the United States has a lot to offer. The result is that many of ICAO’s international standards stem from U.S. research and development initiatives.

Without ICAO standardization, for example, development in the United States of the instrument landing system (ILS) in the late 1940s might easily have been paralleled by the development and implementation of different precision approach techniques in other parts of the world. This would have led to a haphazard patchwork of landing aids and the need for dual, perhaps triple, separate avionics installations for international operations. ICAO’s adoption of ILS prevented this, which meant that even at the height of the Cold War, western aircraft could fly ILS approaches to Communist Bloc airports as easily as if they were at home.

And in the 1970s, when then FAA Administrator Lynn Helms decided unilaterally that the United States would adopt the traffic alert collision avoidance system (TCAS) as its future collision avoidance technique, ICAO swung into line behind him.

More Level Playing Field

However, ICAO’s adoption of U.S. practices is today less of a rubber stamp process than it was 20 or more years ago. Advanced technology developments in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe, have evened the balance. As well, events over the last decade have made many overseas nations wary of automatically adopting the latest U.S. initiatives.

After all, the United States did, in 1978, tout before ICAO the merits of the U.S.-developed microwave landing system (MLS). In turn, the world body adopted MLS as the future international standard, with mandatory compliance by all nations by 1998. However, after extensive preparatory work by overseas countries, including the award of equipment manufacturing contracts, the United States reversed its course and told ICAO in 1985 that it was dropping MLS in favor of the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS)—which the U.S. also developed. GPS, U.S. representatives told ICAO, also would become the only navigation service required by world civil aviation, thereby allowing smaller, cash-strapped, nations to shut down their costly navigation networks.

Unfortunately, by 1999, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had to backtrack and tell the world that the planned "sole means" GPS operations are not yet practical and that a backup terrestrial navaid network would be required for the foreseeable future. Which only goes to show that no single nation has a monopoly on good, or bad, ideas. Ultimately, it is the collective technical expertise of world specialists that can best decide a concept’s merits.

A Look Inside ICAO

How does ICAO work? Essentially, it gathers together civil aviation officials from every country, who are then charged with setting international standards. Headquartered in Montreal, Canada, the organization has a full-time core of permanent operational, technical, legal and other specialists, which supports the activities of ICAO’s many committees, or panels.

Currently, these panels study some 150 different topics, from meteorology to personnel licensing and from collision avoidance to future communications technology. They research, evaluate and then draft the ICAO standards and recommended practices (SARPs) which will form the future international "blueprint" for each subject.

Some panels are relatively small, consisting of perhaps 20 individuals, while others, like the global navigation satellite system panel (GNSS/P), routinely have more than 100 participants. Here, national delegates will usually be supported by their own team of specialists. The United States makes a point of being represented on each ICAO panel and sub-panel, as do other major aviation nations, such as the United Kingdom and France.

Panel members come from the aviation departments and industrial organizations of member nations. Their views are supplemented—and often modified—by those of international organizations such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations (IFALPA), the International Federation of Air Traffic Control Associations (IFATCA), the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) and the International Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (IAOPA). The panel’s results become draft international aviation regulations, but only after three increasingly senior ICAO bodies—the Air Navigation Commission (ANC), the Council, and the Assembly—review and approve them.

Three Distinct Organizations

Of these three groups, the ANC is perhaps most unique. Its 15 commissioners, selected for their technological expertise, come from a mix of advanced and emerging world aviation nations. ICAO asserts that, from the start of their terms of office, the commissioners put aside their national interests and consider issues solely on their benefit to international civil aviation.

As Frank Price, the current commissioner from the United States, explains, "Outside ICAO, I’m simply a U.S. State Department employee. But inside ICAO, I’m an independent expert, doing what I feel is best for the international aviation community."

Currently assigned to the State Department during his ICAO tenure, Price is an instrument-rated commercial pilot and was a long-time FAA air traffic controller who moved up through the ranks to a senior FAA position before being nominated for the ICAO posting. Following his stint with the ANC, he will return to the FAA.

"I’m the first to admit," says Price, "that years ago I was skeptical about ICAO. But I gradually changed my mind. And since being here, I’ve become totally convinced that ICAO is one of the best things the aviation industry has going for it. International standardization is important in the industry today, but it will be absolutely vital in the 21st century"

Looking at Economics

The ICAO Council differs from the Air Navigation Commission. Here, 33 senior officials representing their individual nations review the ANC’s findings, often with more than a shade of national self interest.

They consider how costly a given project will be to their nations. How will it benefit their economies? What industrial advantages, or disadvantages, will it bring? What control will be gained or lost? (This last issue was a delicate one when the Future Air Navigation System [FANS] concept was first mooted for the Pacific, with its proposal for regional, rather than national, air traffic management throughout southeast Asian airspace.)

The U.S. member of the ICAO Council is Edward Stimpson. His appointment last year by President Clinton was both a break with tradition and recognition by the U.S. administration of the need to bring broader perspectives to the world organization’s activities. Prior to Stimpson’s appointment, the U.S. council seat was filled by senior officials from the State Department, who regarded the post as being more of an ambassador rank and requiring diplomatic, rather than aeronautic, experience. By contrast, Stimpson had been president of the U.S. General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) prior to his ICAO appointment, and most recently was co-chair of the top level FAA/RTCA Avionics Certification Task Force.

Final Stamp of Approval

The final ICAO arbiter of program adoption is the ICAO Assembly, at which each of the world’s 185 member states has an equal vote, and a simple majority rules. At this stratum, having passed ANC and ICAO Council scrutiny, a recommendation’s adoption as international policy normally becomes a foregone conclusion, with only rare exceptions.

So do we need ICAO? Most emphatically, yes. We may sometimes disagree with its rulings, but that is the by-product of democracy, which Winston Churchill once defined as the worst possible form of government—until, that is, one looks at the alternatives.

For more information about ICAO, visit the Website

ICAO Achievements in ‘99

The president of the Council of ICAO, Dr. Assad Kotaite, who works closely with Secretary General Renato Claudio Costa Pereira, recently gave his year-end report, listing the agency’s achievements during 1999. Here are some of the milestones he listed:

  • Forty-nine member states had been audited by the ICAO Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme; the remaining 136 states will have been audited by September 2001. The program determines compliance with the safety-related standards and recommended practices (SARPS) contained in the Convention on International Civil Aviation and its annexes.
  • The Accident Investigation and Prevention Division Meeting made recommendations to strengthen aircraft accident prevention.
  • All 185 contracting states responded to ICAO’s Y2K Readiness Programme.
  • The Montreal Convention was signed to replace the Warsaw Convention of 1929. The new convention sets compensation levels for air-accident victims, as well as liability for damage, delay, or loss of baggage or cargo. The Council of ICAO adopted a declaration that urges all states to refrain from use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight (a response to a complaint involving three African countries).
  • ICAO established an average reduction of 16% in the levels of nitrogen oxides that aircraft engines may currently emit. It will be applicable to new engines after 2003.
  • The organization adopted new noise limits for single-engine, light propeller-driven airplanes.
  • ICAO adopted a resolution that requests that the World Trade Organization (which met in Seattle, Wash., late last year) take into account the progress liberalization of international air transport at the bilateral and regional levels, as well as ICAO’s constitutional responsibility for international air transport safety and security.
  • ICAO witnessed an increase in Management Agreement Projects to fund aviation programs in developing countries.
  • The organization disseminated pertinent information through remote translation to off-site meetings, electronic distribution of documents, a staff Website, CD-Roms, E-commerce, etc.
  • ICAO presented Jerome Lederer (from the United States) the 33rd Edward Warner Award for his contribution to all aspects of improved international aviation.
  • The Air Navigation Commission celebrated its 50th year.
  • And ICAO celebrated its 55th anniversary.

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