David Learmount/LONDON

The official ackknowleging by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) that the airline world is split geographically and economically into sectors with vastly different levels of safety achievement was 1997's safety triumph. The coming year will give the first test of political and industrial will to enact a new ICAO mandate to do something about this disparity.

In November 1997, an unprecedentedly large gathering in Montreal, bringing together 142 of the ICAO's 185 member states, gave the ICAO the power to carry out mandatory national safety audits. In 1998, those nations which signed the resolution will have the chance to prove they meant what they said. They have cleared ICAO to audit any nation's safety oversight provision and practice. The audit report would be presented confidentially to the country concerned, with ICAO doing what it can to marshall assistance for nations which need it. The veiled threat is that the report would be made public if efforts and intent to meet ICAO safety minima remained inadequate or absent.

Like any ICAO programme, this could be stopped in its tracks by the withdrawal of goodwill. So putting the policy into effect is going to need diplomacy, especially in the first year. Ill-will would also jeopardise the Montreal-approved Global Aviation Safety Plan (GASP), which recommends greater sharing of safety data and more safety-information transparency. Information-disclosure, however, runs completely counter to most national cultures and to legal pressures, so huge skill will be needed to make it work.

Another global sector which could benefit from safety-data-sharing is the military, but there it is not only national culture which bars transparency. There are definitely more international meetings of military safety chiefs now, but no-one knows what comes of them. Exhortations to the top brass that they are just as accountable to taxpayers as airlines are to customers are unlikely to have any effect.

Safety, however, was top of the International Air Transport Association's 1997 annual-general-meeting agenda. Results from the ICAO and IATA initiatives as soon as 1998 would be welcome but are unlikely.

Source: Flight International