The landmark agreement on aviation – Chicago Convention has allowed air transport to increase global connectivity and boost economies and job creation.
It remains the essential framework for commercial aviation, but as Chicago Convention turns 75, there are challenges ahead for the global aviation industry, especially in relation to ‘Open Skies’.
The Chicago Convention established International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to “promote co-operation and create and preserve friendship and understanding” among the nations and peoples of the world.
Seventy-five years later, the International Civil Aviation network carries more than 4bn passengers annually. The air transport sector supports 65.5mn jobs and accounts for $2.7tn in global economic activity.
More than 10mn people are now working within the industry to ensure 120,000 flights and 12mn passengers a day are carried safely to their destinations.
The wider supply chain, flow-on impacts and jobs in tourism made possible by air transport show that at least 65.5mn jobs and 3.6% of global economic activity are supported by the aviation industry, according to research by the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG).
Global standards, facilitated by ICAO, are often cited as Chicago Convention’s “most important gift” to the world.
While every State retains the authority to regulate airlines based in its territory, each signatory to the Chicago Convention has agreed to adhere to the standards and recommended practices adopted pursuant to the Convention, points out the International Air Transport Association, the global trade body of airlines.
“Whether it is about the licensing of aircraft and crew members, or the framework for global air traffic management, or the regulation of safety, ICAO has been the beacon,” Jeff Shane, IATA’s General Counsel, noted recently.
The Chicago Convention was signed on December 7, 1944, by some 52 signatory states. It was ratified in March 1947 and went into effect in April of that year.
There have been changes to the Convention’s Articles over the years. Eight revisions have been ratified since its inception.
Nevertheless, analysts say, the next 75 years may well see significant changes in civil aviation that will force further revisions.
Drones and commercial space travel are two obvious areas that may need to be addressed. There was a provision for unmanned aircraft in the Convention, but this undoubtedly was addressed to rockets and missiles and not the proliferation of small drones.
Questions have surrounded the Chicago Convention’s suitability since its inception. Most notable, perhaps, is why there isn’t a commitment to Open Skies.
In 1944, the then US President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a message to the Chicago gathering to specifically warn against “great blocs of closed air” and yet that is precisely what happened.
Article 6 of the Convention says a country can’t operate scheduled international air service into the territory of another contracting state without its permission.
This, of course, runs contrary to accepted trading wisdom where liberalisation has brought the greatest benefits to consumers and the economy.
But, Shane points out that any agreement that facilitated global open access for commercial flights was simply inconceivable at the time.
Proof is in the restrictive 1946 Bermuda Agreement between the United Kingdom and the United States, arguably the two most advanced countries at the time in terms of commercial fleet, and so the two countries that stood to gain most from a liberalised market.
The fact that these two giants of the fledgling aviation world were cautious “tells you everything you need to know,” says Shane.
The Bermuda Agreement set the precedent for the many bilaterals that followed. More than 3,500 are now in place and for years most were carefully calibrated – through enabling the strict regulation of entry, capacity, routes, and fares – to protect the interests of each country’s airlines.
This “restrictive” approach proved a stumbling block to aviation growth for decades as it “artificially limited” competition, analysts maintain.
The United States and the Netherlands forged the first Open Skies agreement in 1992.
“This was an accord that eliminated most of the regulatory constraints on air services between the two countries and created a wholly new model for international aviation,” an IATA dossier said.
The United States today has more than 120 Open Skies agreements with trading partners around the world, and the liberalised approach is finding its way into many other markets as well. “Aviation must continue to follow the path set out by the Chicago Convention to ensure the industry’s future growth,” noted International Air Transport Association Director General and CEO Alexandre De Juniac at the recent IATA’s Wings of Change Americas conference in Chicago.
While safety remains the industry’s top priority, he said aviation stakeholders must also consider environmental sustainability, competitive policy framework and efficient, affordable infrastructure as the sector heads into the future.
Undoubtedly, Chicago Convention has helped establish the rules and regulations of global air transport, commercial aviation in particular.
Since inception, it remains focused on laying down the boundaries and defining the notion of ‘state sovereignty’ in civil air travel – creating a balance between the various rights of states to manage their aviation activities; while ensuring that aircraft and air travel follow a set of universal guidelines to ensure the safety of their operations.
But if commercial aviation is to grow further, we must have adequate, affordable airport and air traffic infrastructure in place besides liberal policies, fair competition and open access to support future travel demand.
*Pratap John is Business Editor at Gulf Times.
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