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Dr Assad Kotaite, President Emeritus of the Council, ICAO giving insights on the development of this fast-evolving industry.

   Emergence of Aviation Change and Continuity: Challenges and Opportunities

International civil aviation has come a long way since the Chicago Convention was signed in 1944. Dr Assad Kotaite, President Emeritus of the Council, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), provides a deeper look at the industry’s evolution, as well as the challenges and opportunities it faces.

Emergence of Aviation

Sixty-eight years ago, 52 nations met in Chicago for a Conference that sought to build a strong foundation for international civil aviation. In his message, President Roosevelt reminded the nations present that they had been called upon to undertake a task of the highest importance and exhorted participants “to work together so that the air may be used by humanity to serve humanity”. These visionaries drafted and signed the Convention on International Civil Aviation, known as the Chicago Convention, which is the Charter of International Civil Aviation. Today, 191 States are parties to this Convention. They also drafted the International Air Services Transit Agreement which is in force and to which 129 States are parties to date, and the International Air Transport Agreement which was accepted by only 11 States.

During the Conference, four main proposals were submitted: Australia and New Zealand proposed the internationalisation of civil aviation, including setting up a single international global airline and an international air authority for regulation and supervision; the UK proposed the establishment of an international air authority for economic and technical matters; the US proposal was related to the freedom of the air and a pro-competitive environment; and Canada proposed an international air authority for economic regulations where regional councils would issue certificates and regulate international air services.

None of these proposals were accepted at the time. However, what was not accepted in 1944 has now become commonplace for air transport policy as a result of economic globalisation, as well as the deregulation and liberalisation of air transport.


The Chicago Convention is based on aviation safety, which is a top priority. This responsibility is shared by ICAO, the governments, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and airlines.

In 1945, 247 fatalities were recorded out of 9 million air passengers. By comparison, approximately 2.7 billion passengers travelled by air on scheduled services and about 49 million tonnes of cargo were transported by air with few accidents (approximately 92 accidents) and a relatively low number of fatalities (approximately 486 fatalities) in 2011, which was also the safest year on record. This remarkable improvement was largely achieved with the implementation of ICAO standards, training, data, technology and design. The ICAO Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USOAP), which checks States’ compliance with ICAO standards, and the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) for airlines, play a key role in improving safety.

Although air transport is fundamentally safe, the ultimate goal must always be zero accidents and zero fatalities. The ‘State of Global Aviation Safety – 2011’ published by ICAO highlights that the safety levels enjoyed by global air transport today represent an achievement built on the determination and efforts of the entire aviation community.

Cooperation among States and all stakeholders of air transport should be further enhanced both regionally and internationally in the 21st century to reach a safer sky, more safety transparency, a more effective global security system, greater protection of the environment and higher quality of civil aviation. Safety remains an essential condition for air transport growth.


Turbulence is nothing new to global aviation. In fact, the Convention on International Civil Aviation which created ICAO was signed in the final months of the deadliest war the world had ever seen. Subsequently, global aviation traversed successive waves of turbulence created by circumstances such as recessions, the oil crisis, violent acts, hijacks, the Gulf War, the Balkan War, terrorism, natural disasters, and sometimes by the unexpected economic impact of deregulation and globalisation.

Although quite sensitive to all these occurrences and trends, air transport has always demonstrated resilience and adaptability, emerging stronger and better equipped to meet the next wave of turbulence.

Change and Continuity in Aviation


In this era, the financial and economic crisis is global and so are its negative effects. At these times of crisis, it is vitally important that explicit recognition be given to industry partners who have positively and innovatively responded to the needs of airline customers.

The industry’s collective success lies in a global consensus that is based on cooperation, dialogue and confidence-building – all of which have created the safest and most efficient mode of mass transportation in the history of mankind.

The inherent value of consensus lies in building deals with liberalisation of air transport services. Liberalisation is already well spread around the world and is an irreversible yet gradual process. In 2003, the 5th ICAO Air Transport Conference developed a framework for the progressive liberalisation of international air transport, with safeguards to ensure fair competition, safety and security, and measures to ensure the effective and sustained participation of developing countries.

Challenges and Opportunities

Liberalisation and Regulatory Reform

Liberalisation as a process and methodology must be judged by its consequences and benefits, and not by its theoretical underpinnings. The opportunities of liberalisation must be placed in the context of its challenges. It is especially important that liberalisation does not result in the omission of any State wishing to participate in international air transport.

The preamble of the Chicago Convention is very eloquent; it stipulates that “international air transport services may be established on the basis of equality of opportunity and operated soundly and economically”. Article 44 (f) of the Convention clearly stipulates that “to ensure that the rights of Contracting States are fully respected and that every Contracting State has a fair opportunity to operate international airlines”.

At the same time, it should be acknowledged that there is also a widespread and understandable desire to quicken the pace of regulatory reform, especially in such issues as market access and air carrier ownership and control. It is highly important that in any air transport policy, safety and security should not take a back seat to economic opportunity. In the liberalisation of air transport and the integration of a global air traffic management system, the synergy between the economic and air navigation aspects remain based on the safety and security of civil aviation. There can be no growth in air transport without safety and security, and no viable civil aviation without sound economic policies. Today’s regulatory framework arising from the principles of the Chicago Convention is not rigid, but one that is open to adaptation and evolution.


Although aviation contributes 2 percent of carbon emissions, protection of the environment is another complex priority which should be addressed on a global basis. Over the last 40 years, fuel efficiency has improved by 70 percent. By 2050, there will be no limit as to what could be achieved. Governments, airlines, airports, air navigation services and manufacturers should agree on the four-pillar strategy – investment in technology, effective operations, efficient infrastructure and positive economic measures – as outlined by Mr Giovanni Bisignani, former Director General and Chief Executive Officer of IATA in its 2011 Annual Report.

The industry should also work on shortening air routes and implementing best practices in fuel management. A good example is the establishment of a fundamentally new route structure over the North Pole linking the North American continent with Southeast Asia and the Pacific region. As a result of the Agreement brokered under the auspices of ICAO, very significant mileage savings have been achieved. The objective is to reach a carbon-neutral growth by 2020 and a 50 percent emission reduction by 2050. The ICAO Assembly Resolution of 2010 on the Environment Protection requested the ICAO Council to ensure that ICAO exercise continuous leadership on environmental issues relating to international civil aviation, including green house gas.

Liberalisation of air transport as well as its growth should not negatively affect safety, security and environment protection. It should instead make for a safer sky, greener airlines, more transparency, infrastructure improvements and more economic aircraft operations with a view to achieving zero carbon emissions.


For such a global and complex industry, disputes between States arise from time to time. These disputes are submitted to the ICAO Council for consideration and decision. At the request of the Council and/or initiative of the President of the Council, solutions that are acceptable by the parties concerned would then be successfully negotiated. Negotiations span over a long period of time and require diplomacy, discretion, cooperation, understanding of the views of the parties concerned and finding common ground.

Contingency Plans

In order to avoid disruption of air traffic in turbulent times, contingency arrangements were developed so as to permit continuity of international aviation as a temporary deviation from the Air Navigation Plan. For example, during the Gulf War in 1991, ICAO recognised the potential disruption of major international traffic flows through the Middle East. As such, ICAO developed intercontinental routings around the Arabian Peninsula and monitored the volume of traffic during the war.

ICAO’s Vision for the Future

ICAO’s vision for the future goes beyond air space. We are using satellites for communications, navigation, and surveillance. The first time sub-orbital flights and outer space were mentioned at an ICAO Assembly was at its 35th Session in September 2004, when the Assembly was opened by the President of the Council with the following words “One hundred years from now, regular passenger flights in sub-orbital space and even in outer space could become commonplace”.

To date we have no definition yet as to where the air space ends and outer space begins, and, of course, no international treaty has yet been established. There is no clear indication in international law as to the definition between air space and outer space which would permit to conclude on the applicability of either air law or space law to sub-orbital flights. The United Nations has established a Committee to study the peaceful use of outer space. ICAO participates in the work of the United Nations. Perhaps the time has come to examine how to apply to sub-orbital flights and outer space the same kind of global management process that has worked so successfully for international air transport through the Chicago Convention.


The Chicago Convention has stood the test of time, and the industry should not ignore this precious lesson in history. Civil aviation is a complex industry that is extremely vulnerable to socioeconomic, financial and political factors. The whole history of civilisation and the evolution of progress are based on initiatives and risk-taking.

States need to maintain state-of-the-art airports and air navigation facilities, and provide optimum oversight of the systems. Together, regulators and providers of services will need to cooperate to ensure the availability of adequate infrastructure and qualified personnel in all fields of activity so that the industry may continue to grow and prosper.

This article was adapted from the address delivered by Dr Assad Kotaite at the third Singapore Airshow Aviation Leadership Summit held on 12–13 February 2012.

Article was first published in SAA REVIEW September 2012 issue.


Dr Assad Kotaite
President Emeritus of the Council, ICAO

About the Author

Dr Assad Kotaite is one of the most prominent and respected figures in international civil aviation. For over half a century, he has been closely involved with ICAO in various capacities, of which 30 distinguished years were spent as the President of the Council. During his tenure, Dr Kotaite promoted cooperation within the world aviation community, and not only oversaw the orderly evolution of global aviation, but also helped steer it smoothly in an increasingly competitive and demanding
environment worldwide.

Upon his retirement, Dr Kotaite was bestowed the title of ‘President Emeritus of the ICAO Council’ by the ICAO Council. He has been an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and President of the International Court of Aviation and Space Arbitration since 1995. Dr Kotaite has also been conferred innumerable citations, titles, and honorary university degrees all over the world.


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