The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) declined to involve itself in the Qatar aviation crisis after the Gulf state filed a complaint against four countries that cut diplomatic, economic and transport ties with it. We have been watching the impact of these cuts with interest. It was generally thought these cuts and the limits imposed on Qatar’s home airline would create a serious negative impact. The impact came and was serious, but the airline has managed to overcome these limits and keep growing.
Understandably, Qatar Airways felt it was being unfairly hurt by the politics. It filed a complaint with ICAO. ICAO’s response: ”After taking note of the Qatari complaint, the reply from the four counter-terrorism nations and hearing from the ICAO’s general secretariat about the flow of air traffic over international waters the ICAO Council acknowledged that political outstanding issues between these concerned states should be tackled in international forums away from the ICAO.”
Why did Qatar Airways turn to ICAO in the first place? ICAO started off as being the outcome of The Convention on International Civil Aviation, which was drafted in 1944 by 54 nations, and established to promote cooperation and “create and preserve friendship and understanding among the nations and peoples of the world.” More background is useful.
Known more commonly today as the ‘Chicago Convention’, this landmark agreement established the core principles permitting international transport by air and led to the creation of the specialized agency which has overseen it ever since – the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
ICAO’s core mandate is to help nation states achieve the highest possible degree of uniformity in civil aviation regulations, standards, procedures, and organization. In 1946, The Comité International Technique d’Experts Juridiques Aériens (CITEJA) recommended that a Committee on International Air Law be established within ICAO. Here is a good read about the functions of the Legal Committee of ICAO. Besides this body, ICAO developed a series of rules about airlines and their ability to use airspace. These are known as Freedoms of the Air, and consist of five rules. The first two of these rules date back to 1945. In 2015, at the 36th Session of the ICAO, there was an agreement by members on the “paramount role of international legal conferences aimed at promoting their ratification“. What is “their”? That would be “the ratification of international legal instruments and the status of ratification of international air law instruments.” What does this pertain to? The ICAO calling for universal ratification of the Transit Agreement. Which brings us back to the first of the Five Freedoms. The key item here is that air transport policy is moving towards open skies, aimed to use the shortest available routes.
The conclusion of the 36th Session stated: “There could be various reasons why the Transit Agreement has failed to achieve such universal acceptance as the Chicago Convention. External changes over the past seventy years as laid out above, though, provide sufficient motives to reconsider the value of the Transit Agreement. The Chicago Convention aims to achieve the sound and economic operation of international air transport services, and the Transit Agreement has the potential to facilitate the economical operation of international scheduled services by allowing airplanes to travel the shortest routes. That ICAO continues to call for the universal adherence to the Transit Agreement deserves further support and acclaim.”
Qatar Airways was, it appears, doing exactly what it is supposed to do – turn to ICAO and request it intervene to ensure the Five Freedoms are honored. ICAO, being part of the UN, won’t provide the help Qatar is entitled to request. Rather than deal with the sanctioning states, ICAO has thrown the problem “upstairs” to the UN. The UN, being the gabfest it is, will now talk about talk and nothing is likely to happen. With every state granted one vote, Qatar is going to either lose slowly or quickly. But a win won’t be forthcoming.
Qatar Airways will have to continue to bear higher operating costs from extended flight paths. The non-response from ICAO serves further undermine the value of the UN as a whole as a solution to problems faced by nation states.