Where is ICAO going?
As a UN specialized agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) establishes the standards, recommendations, principles and techniques related to international air transport in order to ensure orderly, efficient, harmonized and safe development of aviation at global level. It was established with the International Convention on Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention) signed by 52 states on 7th December 1944 in Chicago, USA. Today, 193 countries are members of ICAO, which makes it one of the greatest, most influential and most important international organizations in the world. The headquarters of ICAO are in Montreal, Canada. Our country became a full member of ICAO immediately after gaining its independence, i.e. after its admission into the UN in 1993.
After the first successful flight of the Wright brothers on December 17, 1903, humanity waited for 40 years for the establishment of an international organization, which would begin to analyze, regulate and solve any issues and accumulated problems in the field of civil aviation. This year ICAO celebrates an important event – it’s 75th anniversary. For three quarters of the past centenary ICAO has been the basis of all processes, projects and activities in the field of air transport at a global level. No aviator in the world is unfamiliar with the 19 Annexes of ICAO, or the airport, aircraft and airline reference codes or designators, the Standards and Recommended Practices related to aeronautical information, communications, navigation, safety, security, facilitation, travelling, oversight and management of air transport. However, the latest technical developments, the new technologies and contemporary trends in the field of aviation, in particular from the aspect of fast global growth of unmanned aircraft (drones) led this international organization to a new crossroad in its evolution. Today, ICAO is faced with the challenge of making a very important decision about its own future-whether it should deal with the issue of unmanned aircraft i.e. whether it should be involved in the regulation of the operation of unmanned aircraft and become an integral part of this contemporary and modern aviation story. Opinions are mixed regarding this matter.
At this moment ICAO is responsible for establishment of the international standards and recommendations for drones, but only from the aspect of their registration. Taking into account that drones are operated in the so-called free airspace, where the operation of aircraft does not have to be strictly regulated by Air Traffic Control, leads to the conclusion that from safety aspect ICAO “does not have anything to do” with this area of aviation activities. This gains importance due to the fact that drones are operated over the territory of their own state, where they are registered, meaning that there is no international dimension of this matter. However, it’s a matter of when…and not if, but when unmanned aircraft will start to fly at higher altitudes and enter into controlled airspace where commercial air transport operations take place, infringe borders and operate over territories of the neighboring states. At the same time, we are witnessing that safety incidents have started to occur at airport control zones on different world meridians, where passenger aircraft often have “close encounters” with unmanned aircraft during take-off or landing. The example from December last year with the London Gatwick Airport is still quite recent, when due to unannounced operation of an unmanned aircraft, the airport remained closed for traffic for 33 hours within 3 days, which caused a significant negative financial, commercial and traffic impact of national character. As a result of the incident more than 1000 flights were postponed, diverted or cancelled affecting more than 140 000 passengers and the total financial damage was estimated to more than 60 million euros. Incidents involving drones also occurred at the airports in Frankfurt, Milano, Singapore, Tokyo, Boston, Monaco, Montreal, Chicago, Atlanta and others. In the first 5 months this year more than 40 incidents with drones have been recorded at airports across world meridians. And not only that. If we take into account that a drone, besides being an aircraft can also be used as a weapon or an explosive device, the airports and aircraft can become an easy target for possible terrorist attacks from the air. This may lead to occurrence of accidents or serious incidents in international dimensions, which is certainly a part of the ICAO responsibilities.
Statistics shows that air transport is the safest mode of transport of people and cargo. Today more than 1500 international airports provide ground handling services to approximately 4,5 billion passengers yearly. More than 300 commercial air operators every year carry around 2,2 billion passengers and more than 50 million tons of cargo around the world. Every year aircraft of more than 50 manufacturers in the world perform around 72 million take-offs and landings. This means that around 100 thousand daily average flights are carried out, i.e. averagely at any moment there are 9730 aircraft in the sky, carrying more than 1 million and 200 thousand people. Every day the aviation is unstoppably moving forward. No other area has reached a higher level of development from technical-technological and safety aspects in 100 years of existence.
Nevertheless, the history of aviation is not bright at all…many of its pages are written in accidents, incidents and disasters…material damages, human victims and tragic destinies. In fact, most of the international conventions, protocols and agreements have been adopted post festum i.e. after occurrence of certain undesirable or illegal occurrences with significant, severe and painful consequences of global nature. Faced with great human, material and financial losses from such occurrences, people from different parts of the world used to gather at the same table to reach an agreement because they were facing the same problems irrespective of their racial, national, religious, ethnic or any other affiliation. Multilateral agreements have always been adopted in order to avoid repeated appearance of undesirable occurrences in the future, i.e. to prevent or at least mitigate the severe consequences of their eventual repeating.
For example, the Warsaw Convention from 1929 and the Montreal Protocol from 1999 related to harmonization of rules in international air transport have been adopted after serious problems, deficiencies and unregulated issues related to charges for international air transport of passengers and cargo, including the very sensitive and important issue related to liability of air operators for incurred personal and material damages. The Chicago Convention for international civil aviation from 1944 regulates all unresolved issues in the field of international air transport accumulated in the period between two world wars related to state ownership and registration of aircraft, documents and competency of aviation personnel, privileges and freedoms for using the airspace of foreign countries and misuse of aircraft and similar. The Tokyo Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft from 1963 was adopted after the increased practice of misuse of aircraft from safety aspects in the 1950s. Similarly, the Hague Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft from 1970 was a result of the increased number of hijackings of passenger aircraft across the world meridians in the 1960s due to political reasons. The case of the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Air Navigation from 1971, the Montreal Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence at Airports from 1988, the Montreal Convention on the Marking of Plastic Explosives from 1991 etc. is identical. Following the tragic events with the terrorist air attack in the USA on 11 September 2001 the entire doctrine of the international aviation standards and recommended practices in the field of aviation security and the measures against the acts of unlawful interference was changed, resulting in adoption of several international protocols, treating aircraft as deadly weapons when terrorists are infiltrated as crew members.
It is more than obvious that drones are increasingly used in all business areas, mostly for surveying, surveillance and monitoring. In the world of civil aviation, they are still only aircraft, but it is a question of time when they will become air transport means. In more developed countries drones are extensively used for delivery of products in remote areas, search and rescue missions, various activities performed in extreme meteorological conditions etc. The company “Amazon” has already submitted a request to the Federal Aviation Authorities of the USA for obtaining a license for using unmanned aircraft upon delivery of its products to the buyers. In several economically developed states in the world drones are extensively used in post delivery; the use of unmanned aircraft as taxi (in the beginning for cargo only, but later for people as well) is expected to intensify in the next 3-4 years. At the end of the last month, the European Commission published the Regulation related to operation of unmanned aircraft. The latest types of commercial transport aircraft from Airbus and Boeing are already equipped and prepared to fully operate without pilots. What used to be science fiction in the world of literature and film art only around 30 years ago is already a reality today. The things which seemed like a distant fantasy in the movies of Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg that we used to watch as children in the beginning of 1980s have become our reality now. Very soon in the near future, as early as in the next decade, the operation of air traffic will become a matter under the responsibility of municipalities and local self-governments in the field of communal regulation, i.e. local city transport. Those who have seen the first part of the film trilogy “Back to the future” from the director Steven Spielberg remember the well-known line at the end of the film, when the scientist Doc, before starting his car for time travel says to Marty: “Roads?! Where we are going, we don’t need roads!” … and the car takes off in the air.
Aviation experts are unified in their expectations that ICAO, in spite of its inertness in making decisions will gather strengths, make efforts and find ways to keep pace with the contemporary technical, technological and operational trends in the world. It is more than certain that none of us wants belong to a generation that will wait for 10 or 20 years to learn from mistakes. Therefore, all of us who are professionally or recreationally related to civil aviation activities expect from ICAO to immediately immerse bravely into the area of unmanned aircraft operations and to encourage, assist and channel the imminent further development of unmanned aircraft.
P.S. In the last couple of years ICAO has been responsible for a very important global project in the field of aviation development – “No country left behind”. The purpose of this project is to assist developing countries to keep pace with the contemporary technical, technological and operational achievements in the field of civil aviation. Regarding the future development of global operations of unmanned aircraft, I believe that the need for a new international project “No ICAO left behind” will be obsolete.
Tomislav Tuntev, PhD
Director General of the CAA