ICAO is the main body for regulation in aviation and a specialized agency of the United Nations. It is funded and directed by 193 national governments to support their diplomacy and cooperation in air transport as signatory states to the 1944 Chicago Convention. ICAO coordinates the principles and techniques of international air navigation and fosters the planning and development of international air transport to ensure safe and orderly growth.
Its core function is to maintain an administrative and expert bureaucracy (the ICAO Secretariat) supporting these diplomatic interactions and to research new air transport policy and standardization innovations as directed and endorsed by governments through the ICAO Assembly, or by the ICAO Council which the assembly elects. ICAO headquarters are located in the Quartier International of Montreal, Quebec (Canada) but the agency has offices in seven other cities: Bangkok, Dakar, Cairo, Lima, Mexico City, Nairobi and Paris. Moreover, there are six official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. All documents are translated and written in every official language.
ICAO Council adopts standards and recommended practices concerning air navigation, its infrastructure, flight inspection, prevention of unlawful interference, and facilitation of border-crossing procedures for international civil aviation and also defines the protocols for air accident investigation. The Air Navigation Commission (ANC) is the technical body within ICAO. The commission is composed of nineteen commissioners, nominated by ICAO’s contracting states and appointed by the ICAO Council. Commissioners serve as independent experts who, although nominated by their states, do not serve as state or political representatives. International Standards and Recommended Practices are developed under the direction of the ANC through the formal process of ICAO Panels.
This month, on October 4th, the ICAO Assembly elected the new Council Member States for a three-year term. These states are selected in terms of their importance:
- PART I – States of chief importance in air transport: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
- PART II – States which make the largest contribution to the provision of facilities for international civil air navigation: Argentina, Austria, Egypt, Iceland, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, and Venezuela.
- PART III – States ensuring geographic representation: Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Jamaica, Malaysia, Mauritania, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Romania, United Arab Emirates, and Zimbabwe.
The stipulations ICAO standards contain never supersede the primacy of national regulatory requirements. It is always the local, national regulations that are enforced in, and by, sovereign states, and which must be legally adhered to by air operators making use of applicable airspace and airports. ICAO is therefore not an international aviation regulator, just as INTERPOL is not an international police force. They cannot arbitrarily close or restrict a country’s airspace, shut down routes, or condemn airports or airlines for poor safety performance or customer service.
There are 193 ICAO members consisting of 192 of the 193 UN members (all but Lichtenstein, which lacks an international airport), plus the Cook Islands. Despite Liechtenstein not being a direct party to ICAO, its government has delegated Switzerland to enter into the treaty on its behalf, and the treaty applies in the territory of Liechtenstein.
ICAO has published standards for machine-readable passports. Machine-readable passports have an area where some of the information otherwise written in textual form is also written as strings of alphanumeric characters, printed in a manner suitable for optical character recognition. This enables border controllers and other law enforcement agents to process such passports more quickly, without having to enter the information manually into a computer. ICAO’s technical standard for machine-readable passports is contained in Document 9303 Machine Readable Travel Documents. A more recent standard covers biometric passport that contains biometrics to authenticate the identity of travelers. The passport’s critical information is stored on a tiny RFID computer chip, much like information stored on smart cards. Like some smart cards, the passport book design calls for an embedded contactless chip that is able to hold digital signature data to ensure the integrity of the passport and biometric data.
The main difference between ICAO and IATA (International Air Transport Association) is that ICAO is an international body and a public organization, while IATA is a private one, as well as ACI (Airports Council International).
You may also have heard about ICAO 4-letters codes (vs IATA’s 3-letter codes). These are used usually by professionals, for example, Chales de Gaulle Airport has an ICAO code of LFPG, where L indicates Southern Europe, F, France, PG, Paris de Gaulle, while Orly Airport has the code LFPO (the 3rd letter sometimes refers to the particular flight information region (FIR) or the last two may be arbitrary). In most parts of the world, ICAO and IATA codes are unrelated; for example, Charles de Gaulle Airport has an IATA code of CDG.
ICAO recommends a unification of units of measurement within aviation based on the International System of Units (SI). Technically this makes SI units preferred, but in practice the following non-SI units are still in widespread use within commercial aviation:
- Knots (kn) for speed.
- Nautical mile (NM) for distance.
- Foot (ft) for elevation.
As a conclusion we can say that ICAO is the main regulatory body for aviation around the world with all states being a part of it and is another example of the benefits that international cooperation brings.