ICAO’s 75th Anniversary: an insider’s history by Jim Loos

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This UN body is known by many in Aviation

Few knew what ICAO does

Jim Loos recounts some significant ICAO accomplishments



By Jim Loos


December 7 2019 is the 75th anniversary of the conclusion of the Chicago Conference and agreement on the Convention that created the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). President Roosevelt proposed the meeting to develop a post war air transport regime. Others, primarily the British, strongly disagreed with the US liberal proposals, and on Dec 1 the New York Daily News declared the meeting a “flop”.

Over in a “corner”, a group of techies had worked in relative obscurity and produced 10 proposed Annexes to the anticipated Convention, ranging from communications and air traffic control to publications and forms. They worked from U.S. and Canadian material as well as relevant ICAN (International Commission for Air Navigation, the post World War I predecessor to ICAO) documents.

The Convention agreed to a formal structure for the Organization with a Council as the most important body between Assemblies. The US originally proposed major States would get two votes each on the Council, but quickly withdrew the suggestion after several States objected. The body was formed with equal votes, no permanent members and no veto provisions.

The Convention also provided for an Air Navigation Commission, to be made up of independent technical experts nominated by the various member States. The Commission does the technical work of the Organization assisted by various types of working groups consisting of specialized experts from the States and supported by the ICAO Secretariat.



There is a proud history of ICAO since 1944.

The war was ending and it was clear that military aviation assets would be disappearing so ICAO set about dividing the world into regions. The Government of Ireland was asked to convene a meeting of interested States by March of 1946 to “…discuss the facilities required for the protection of civil air operations in the North Atlantic Region, and the special procedures that should be used in North Atlantic operations.” on April 24th the First European RAN meeting convened. ICAO was in the regional planning business and proceeded to further divide the world’s airspace into Flight Information Regions for the provision of air traffic control. (ICAO has insisted that FIRs have no relevance to sovereignty but that has been a very hard sell)

While ICAO has no operational responsibility, it does have legal responsibility for international airspace specifically over the oceans. It provides the forum and legal structure for aircraft separation and procedures over the water, perhaps best known for increasing the capacity of the North Atlantic route system.

In 1946 ICAO adopted the United States developed Instrument landing System (ILS). Ah but then the US got a better idea…GCA, and ICAO accepted the proposal as a secondary system. In 1949 ICAO recognized the US proposed VOR/DME. Then the US got a better idea, TACAN. ICAO rejected it at first but eventually accepted the proposal.

The Organization developed a world-wide standard system that allowed for a growing, safe international aviation transport system that generally remains in use today.

Then the US got a better idea, MLS. The debate on MLS was extensive and heated. ICAO provided a forum to drive the world to a decision. In the US view a favorable/correct decision.

Then the US had a better idea…GPS…well you get the picture.









In each case ICAO provided the way forward and accomplished one of its primary goals, the establishment of world-wide Standards and Recommended Practices.

When European environmentalists developed restrictive criteria for aviation in Europe the US position was that it was a world-wide problem and therefore needed to be decided in Montreal. After protracted discussion/debate/argument, agreement was reached in ICAO on noise and emissions.

I recall the President of the Council, Assad Kotaite, chairing an informal meeting of the two groups until two or three in the morning and then the 70 plus year old taking the chair of an Assembly Plenary session at 9.

Over the years ICAO has played a role in various international crisis events. When Vietnam fell, they coordinated the necessary temporary routes to keep traffic flowing. During the war in Bosnia they played a part in ensuring safe flights around war zones and safe arrival for UN aircraft.

The Organization played a major role in the aftermath of the shootdown of a Libyan Airliner in 1973, an Iranian Air in 1988, the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in 1996 and KAL 007 in 1983. The latter leading to the adoption of Article 3bis forbidding the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight.

ICAO provides technical assistance to developing States on a reimbursable basis and hosts seminars on subjects that States need.

They have proposed criteria for spoken English for both flight crews and controllers.

ICAO Standards provide the basis for the FAA’s IASA audits of foreign Government’s certification and oversight process, as well as the FAA’s security audits.

Following the FAA’s lead, ICAO developed its own audit programs, auditing all member States on safety oversight and security. One of the few UN specialized agencies to have such programs.

Allow me one story. In the early days of the development of the ICAO audit program (Universal Safety Oversight Audit Program) the Commission produced four papers for the Council’s review and approval. I sat in the Council the day they were discussed. The UK and the President of the Air Navigation Commission supported the papers, everyone else had reservations.

After the meeting I sent an email to Washington. “Four papers discussed; four papers lost.”

That night there was going away party for a couple of folks. I was sitting outside the party room when Dr Kotaite came along. I guess I was looking down…without breaking stride he said to me…” Don’t worry you’ll get everything you want.”

Only then did I realize he had ended each discussion without a conclusion. The DGCA meeting scheduled a few months later approved the program as proposed.

Dr K was a man who gave everybody his/her proper attention and whose instincts generally led to appropriate conclusions.

President Roosevelt’s message to the opening of the Conference was:

As we begin to write a new chapter in the fundamental law of the air, let us all remember that we are engaged in a great attempt to build enduring institutions of peace. …with full recognition of the sovereignty and judicial equality of all nations let us work together so that the air may be used by humanity, to serve humanity.[1]

US citizens fly on foreign carriers to and from all the countries of the world. US participation in the work of ICAO ensures a level of safety in every corner of the globe. To this degree the President’s objective was fulfilled.

The Conference also produced the International Air Services Transit Agreement providing the first two freedoms of the air, and the International Air Transport Agreement, which provided the five freedoms. The Council was directed to form an Air Transport Committee. The main objective was not completely abandoned.

Finally the quote from delegate Fiorello La Guardia during the Conference:

“Great work has been done in air navigation, safety, weather reports; but, Gentlemen, in all seriousness, there really is no difficulty in agreeing on technical problems. Everybody is against bad weather…”[2]

(He used to read me the comics on the radio Sunday morning.)

During my involvement (getting more past every year) ICAO, especially in the Commission, was as apolitical and effective as any international organization can be. It was slow sometimes, well most times, but it was effective and contributed significantly to the safety of international flight. It has to stay that way or we’re in deep trouble.


Overall, I believe the Chicago Conference was not a flop. Happy 75th.

Other posts by Mr. Loos:

Special Insight Into The Intersection Of Accident And Criminal Investigations


Jim Loos’ Interpretation Of ICAO’s Role In The Qatar-UAE Dispute


Persian Gulf Airspace Escalates From ICAO To ICJ- Curiousier And Curiousier



[1]  President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s message to the Opening Plenary Session of the Chicago Convention; as quoted by Assad Kotaite, Information Kit for ICAO’s 50th Anniversary (7 December 1994)

[2] Ibid, pg 464

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1 Comment on "ICAO’s 75th Anniversary: an insider’s history by Jim Loos"

  1. Jim Loos is the perfect person to give us insight into ICAO in front and behind the curtain. Thanks

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