INTERNATIONALLY ACCEPTED operating standards have long been among the greatest strengths of the airline community, but they are now posing one of its greatest challenges - through the failure of national regulators to keep pace with the increasing complexity of the globalising industry they seek to control. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly, than in the case of wet leasing of airliners between countries, a trade whose deficiencies have been shown up in two tragic cases highlighted recently.

In the first, a UK Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) report identified weaknesses in the operation of an Algerian airliner chartered by a UK company as factors in the loss of the aircraft at Coventry in December 1994.

In the second case, it appears that the airline which operated the Antonov An-32 which crashed on 8 January in Zaire, with a huge loss of life on the ground, had had its operating licence withdrawn by the Russian authorities, and that the aircraft's certificate of airworthiness had expired. Presumably, the Zairean authorities had accepted in good faith that the aircraft was airworthy, its crew fully qualified and their licences current.

In both cases, in different ways, the aircraft were being operated outside the rules of their country of registration and, therefore, outside the rules of the host country. According to the letter of the rules, of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, those authorities would have had no grounds for investigations, because the country of registry (if it is a signatory to the ICAO's central treaty, the Chicago Convention) has promised to enforce the accepted minimum international standards, on operators under its flag.

When the original Chicago Convention was signed, aviation was still very much a national pastime, with simple international links between only a few consenting countries.

Today - as a business as well as a mode of transport - commercial aviation is very much an international business; tomorrow it will be even more so. Even without the creeping liberalisation of international services, the business is becoming more international through economic and political circumstance.

The old Soviet Union had the largest "airline" in the world, with some 5,000 aircraft. The new Russia and its CIS partners have several hundred airlines, operating many of those 5,000 aircraft. Domestic CIS traffic figures, however, have slumped so badly upon subsidy removal, that they are not expected to recover even to pre-Glasnost levels before 2009.

The only defence today for countries faced with these aircraft is to take over the roles of their "flag"-country authorities, and regulate them themselves. The USA has done it, to the extent of banning operations into its territory from nations whose regulatory performance it deems inadequate. Any country could do it, if the evidence of substandard operation is strong, but the USA has been uniquely systematic through its "International aviation-safety assessment programme". The UK is starting to take a systematic approach. Collectively, Europe looked at doing it, but could not find a common acceptable approach to dealing with the offending countries because of non-common bilateral relationships.

In 1992, ICAO passed a resolution, which restated the need for member states to live up to their safety-oversight obligations under the treaty, thus tacitly accepting that many did not. ICAO, however, has a problem. While it has a mandate to set standards, it has neither the mandate nor the wherewithal to enforce them. The sanctions against bad practice, however, should not need to be applied by isolated countries, but by the international body.

ICAO now proposes an oversight assessment and assistance programme. Resources for this will, at the beginning, have to come from those member nations with both the funds and the expertise. Permanent provision for the task, however, must be incorporated into ICAO's own budget as soon as possible in view of the speed with which the nature of the international airline business is changing. Resources for ICAO oversight and the application of sanctions are as fundamental as the setting of standards.

Source: Flight International