ICAO is getting stronger, but the organisation must make sure it matches its increased muscle with responsibility and transparency

The International Civil Aviation Organisation has more power now than it has ever had. This is not the result of a constitutional change conferred by its assembly it emanates from the fact that an increasingly globalised aviation industry needs an effective facilitator to enable agreement on standards in a period of change. Without it, bilateralism would dominate, international aviation could not prosper, and growth and innovation would be stifled.

ICAO's greatest weakness has always been its sloth-like slowness in getting things agreed. It works by consensus, and its 190 members are states, not businesses, hence the inertia. Not so long ago, carefully negotiated resolutions ratified at ICAO could be ignored with impunity by signatory states - especially the smaller or less prosperous ones.

Not any more. As aviation goes truly global and expands rapidly, putting pressure on all aspects of the world's air traffic management and airports infrastructure, ICAO is now an agency that holds the key to the success or failure of the international air transport industry.

What has tipped the balance? In 1999 ICAO was given a mandate to carry out a limited Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme of states, and by 2005 had been cleared to expand that programme into every sector of a national aviation system. ICAO has become a regulator because the world needed one.

This time last year ICAO's veteran outgoing council president Assad Kotaite pulled off his legacy coup: he persuaded willing states to publish the results of their safety audits. Nearly 100 have done so, leaving the travelling public to wonder why the rest do not. And on 23 March 2008 ICAO will name the countries that have refused to go public with safety oversight audit results, and will provide summarised results for the states that agree to it.

ICAO has been ceded power by its member states because, increasingly, it suits them to do it. Now the organisation is preparing to wield its influence with air navigation service providers. It befits the air transport industry to have a globally predictable network of providers for safety, efficiency and cost reasons. Again, ICAO is going to broker the changes in the way these providers measure their performance. No other single agency can do this. Indispensability confers power, but the process by which this power transfer is taking place is something like democracy. The members are conferring it because it suits them to do so.

If ICAO's power is increasing, so is its responsibility. The first thing it should do is speed up its processes, because its members need results faster. It should become more transparent by improving the quality of its communications. Having facilitated consensus, ICAO's main job is to communicate what has been agreed. At present its style is bureaucratic.

The ICAO council has its first new president in 30 years. The world is different now. It is prepared to concede more power to ICAO in return for faster results and greater transparency.

Source: Flight International