ICAO logo
8 min read

Older pilots may wonder why they used to be able to refer to “decision height” on an approach chart rather than “decision altitude.” Or why they now have to refer to their home airport, as I do, as “KFDK” (Frederick, Maryland), rather than the old “FDK.” And consider a student pilot, desperate to figure out a METAR who is OK with SN (snow) or RA (rain) or FG (fog) but can’t understand why mist is “BR” (the word brume is French for mist) or why hail is “GR” (in French grele).

What my pilot friends are dealing with is the work of a fairly obscure international agency, created under the auspices of the United Nations, called the International Civil Aviation Organization. The acronym is ICAO, and in normal international parlance is pronounced “Eye-See-A-Oh” or sometimes “Eye-Kay-Oh.” Headquartered in Montreal, Canada, it has become one of the most important aviation bodies in the world, providing world-wide standards that are sometimes controversial and difficult to implement but which have brought a great deal of welcome uniformity to the aviation community.

ICAO logo

It’s behind a lot of aviation standards.

ICAO was created in 1944 by a treaty (The Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation) as a component of the United Nations (specifically the UN Economic and Social Council). The Chicago Convention was preceded by a much less powerful treaty signed just after World War One (the 1919 Convention for the Regulation of Aerial Navigation). ICAO became operational in April, 1947, and was given a very clear mission—to standardize international aviation procedures and terminology so that commercial pilots flying around the world would feel comfortable virtually anywhere they fly. Currently, there are 193 countries who have subscribed (in legal parlance either “signed” or “acceded to”) to the treaty, along with a number of “invited organizations” who participate in ICAO discussions but do not have decision-making powers.

As a United Nations organization, ICAO is set up in a very traditional structure with a Triennial Commission as the top rung that meets at least once every three years. The Commission last met in late September and October of last year, having had its previous session in 2016. The Commission deals mainly with the broadest issues, such as the admission of additional countries (“Member States”), broad policy directives and the like.

The day-to-day operations of ICAO are vested in the Governing Council (with various committees) and the Secretariat (comprised of a number of individual bureaus). ICAO’s chief executive officer is the Secretary General, currently Mr. Salvatore Sciacchitano from Italy, who served several years in the European Civil Aviation Conference and previously held a number of important positions inside Italy. Mr. Sciacchitano has an engineering degree from the University of Catania and a private pilot license. The rest of ICAO is largely staffed with highly-credentialed employees from a number of countries around the world, including the United States.

No UN-based organization could be complete without a secretariat. The ICAO Secretariat comprises several bureaus including the Bureau of Air Navigation, which makes most of the policy decisions that directly affect the FAA and US pilots. The other bureaus are not unimportant (Air Transport, Legal Affairs, Technical Co-operation, Administration) but they don’t have the same impact on general aviation pilots.

The ICAO decision-making process is somewhat different from that of the FAA. Under a federal statute called the administrative procedure act, US federal agencies make policy using a process referred to as notice and comment, by which an agency puts out a proposed regulation, solicits comments from the affected entities and the general public and then, after considering the comments, issues a final regulation. There are some exceptions to this process, notably for emergency situations, but basically this is how U.S. administrative agencies make their rules. Although subject to a lot of deserved criticism, this process is reasonably efficient, effective and (best of all) transparent with (often) a great deal of public participation. In the United States, we’ve used notice and comment since 1946.

ICAO is different. Its procedures are far less efficient and much less transparent. That is not to say that ICAO’s ultimate decisions are necessarily faulty or unwise, but “how” ICAO makes these decisions is murky and non-public. There is no question that ICAO is a “big boy” culture. The delegates from the signatory countries view themselves more as diplomats than as aviation specialists. The Secretariat and the bureaus have lots of specialists and, to its credit, ICAO consults with an enormous number of organizations by way of its “invited organizations” process. ICAO very carefully does not label these entities as “observers” and is quick to point out that not every organization is invited to every ICAO proceeding.

ICAO meeting

An ICAO meeting includes a lot of outside groups.

But what’s really revealing are the private sector groups who are on the list. There are over 40 organizations on the list, including, for example, the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations (FALPA) and the parallel group (FATCA) for the traffic controllers. Others are the Aviation Working Group, the International Air Transport Association, and the Flight Safety Foundation. Some organizations, such as the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), participate through affiliation with the International Business Aviation Council—a “invited” organization. But notice: there are virtually no representatives from small aircraft or general aviation entities. The AOPA is not an invited organization, although I don’t know if AOPA has ever shown an interest in attending and it may be that AOPA, much like the NBAA, participates as a sub-entity within one of the larger groups.

A bit disingenuously, ICAO claims not to be a regulatory organization. It constantly reiterates that it is only a consensus-building body. But for many years, we’ve seen ICAO dominate vast areas of civil aviation—runway markings, air traffic control procedures, accident investigation techniques and the like. In theory, no signatory country is required to abide by an ICAO pronouncement. ICAO makes a great deal of aviation policy through the development and promulgation of what are called “Standards and Recommended Practices” (SARPs). While nominally arrived at by consensus, ICAO standards are mandatory when aircraft operators are flying internationally and become mandatory (“adopted”) in the signatory countries unless a particular country takes an exception (most often referred to as a “difference”) from the ICAO rule. These differences are published by ICAO in its Document 7030, and national aviation regulatory authorities are expected to publish the differences but 7030 is rarely up-to-date.

The FAA interacts with ICAO mainly through ICAO’s Global Initiatives Group. Over the years, the relationship appears to be strong and productive but it has not been lacking in controversy. And there are some safety valves that prevent ICAO from totally dominating and dictating aviation policy in the United States. As noted, the FAA is not automatically required to abide by all ICAO standards and requirements. The FAA publishes deviations from ICAO policy in its Aeronautical Information Publication. But deviations can be problematic. There have been some tragic consequences arising out of these differences. In 2002, there was an in-flight collision over Switzerland between a DHL 757 and a Tupolev Tu-154 flown by Bashkirian Airlines. There was a long chain of unfortunate events that led to the collision, but part of the problem appears to have been the use by the DHL pilots of US-based lost communications procedures rather than the ICAO lost communications procedures.

Many of us have just had hands-on experience with one recent ICAO initiative—the flight plan requirement that was implemented by the FAA last year. The new format took the FAA a few years to put into operation and there were a lot of fits and starts. But what most U.S. pilots don’t know is that ICAO begin working on this way back in 2007-2008. This is one of the criticisms of ICAO—that it is way too slow to develop new policy—but they finally got it done!

ICAO flight plan form

Flight plan forms are one way pilots see the result of ICAO’s work.

I know the flight plan changes have caused some of my pilot friends to grit their teeth and curse, but when you look at the ICAO changes, they strike me as pretty rational. And, if I can believe the AOPA and some of the other pilot organizations, implementation has been pretty smooth because our new flight planning software (ForeFlight, etc.) has been able to accommodate all the changes without a lot of opportunities for individual pilots to foul up.

But what is ICAO up to these days and where do we stand? ICAO is doing all kinds of things such as communications procedures, accident reporting, cockpit voice recorders and the like. It recently launched a new protocol for reporting of adverse weather called “SNOWTAMs” that we will probably see in the US in the near future. SNOWTAMs are notifications to pilots of hazardous conditions due to snow, ice, slush or standing water during winter operations. ICAO is just starting to deal with drones and one potentially enormous fight that is looming involves differences between the FAA and ICAO with regard to the impact of climate change and global warming on aviation.

For my part, very little of this has kept me awake at night. When you think about it, international standardization is not a bad thing. Think about standard runway markings, among many other things. Yes, ICAO has serious transparency problems and its policymaking is incredibly slow, but when you put most of the ICAO standards under a microscope they make sense even if some of us would do things differently. It’s pretty clear that ICAO is not going to go away. Smart pilots would do well to follow ICAO’s work and learn from its efforts. ICAO is at the cutting edge of a large number of developments that are likely to affect us as pilots in the near future.

William F. Fox
Latest posts by William F. Fox (see all)
11 replies
  1. Gideon Ewers
    Gideon Ewers says:

    Thanks for a great article, one of the things I found challenging in my time at IFALPA was explaining to pilots around the world how ICAO works, it’s glacial rate of doing things,(and thus the need for sustained lobbying to effect change), the UN-ish nature of the organisation (with the attendant political dimension) and finally the limitations of what it can actually do (contracting dates don’t actually have apply ANY of the SARPs! and thus the need to continue to work with national regulators.

  2. Kenneth Rider
    Kenneth Rider says:

    I haven’t filed a flight plan for some time. I have carried a business sized flight plan form in my pocket for 20 some years to file flight plans. Can I still use this form to file?

  3. John
    John says:

    I understand standardization for purposes of international operations, but I think it was absolutely daft of the FAA to require ICAO flight plan information for US flights. The old /G has been replaced by something that now resembles SBDFGR SUR/LB1 PBN/A1B2C2D2. Why? I file through my EFB, which has all these codes stored in my aircraft profile, so it’s something I never think about, except when I couldn’t get cell data service from a remote field. The phone briefer wouldn’t take /G, and I had to dig these codes out of my EFB. Maybe this ICAO nonsense will have utility in the distant future when, say, computers are issuing specific approaches based on capabilities in your flight plan. But now, with actual conversations between pilots and controllers, this serves no purpose and is standardization for standardization’s sake.

  4. Mike Smith
    Mike Smith says:

    General Aviation pilots, to stay live and make flying safe and convenient for themselves and others, along with presenting a favorable view of recreational and business fly to the public, must be realists as well as teachers.

    This means study and putting into action real things. So, pilots must be prone to digging for the truth and rejecting lies.

    Perhaps the biggest hoax today is the whole climate industry that has captured entire governments and private industry that must deal with governments.

    The statement lifted below illustrates why AOPA is out of touch with reality!

    “…one potentially enormous fight that is looming involves differences between the FAA and ICAO with regard to the impact of climate change and global warming on aviation.”

    First, the whole idea of man (specifically capitalism and private property) are the main causes of so-called climate change (Climate changes all of the time regardless of what man does!) Other than local conditions like smog over LA, a real problem that we in the U. S. have been more or less successful in reducing, while still maintaining productive human life.

    Having cleaned up 90 percent of reducable pollution in the air, waters and ground over the last 30-40 years, we are being forced to reduce more and more tiny bits at higher and higher costs. Talk about being behind the power curve! We’ve long past the point of diminishing, and even reversing, returns! Examples are that all alternative “renewable” energy sources require taxpayer subsidies to be economically viable. As all human activities cause some environmental disruptions these alternatives are polluting more than if we stuck to the traditional sources, like oil.

    Second, all of General Aviation, in fact all of the off road recreational and home based vehicle activity, from four-wheelers, fishing boats and lawn mowing — cause less than Two Percent of all pollution. Billions already spent trying to find a 100 Octane replacement for 100LL is not only a waste of time and resource, but a cause of frustration insecurity among pilots, owners and operators. Why not end this tomfoolery now!?

    A quesion, no one has gotten me an answer on—yet. When I was a kid Amoco sold 100 octane automobile fuel, “white gas” with no lead, at commercially viable prices. How did they do it then, why cannot we do it today?

    • Paul Wisgerhof
      Paul Wisgerhof says:

      Exxon/Mobile or any of the other refiners could make 100 octane fuel with lead anytime they wanted to. However, the only demand for it is Ferrari owners and the like, so there isn’t enough demand to make it worthwhile. No lead versions would require more work but are possible. 93 octane no lead does exist. Again, for the owners of high compression auto engines.

  5. John
    John says:

    I flew in 15 or so countries in Africa and the ICAO flight plan was great rather than 15 or so different flight plan formats. You’ll get used to it quickly.

  6. Dave English
    Dave English says:

    Nice read, thank you. I worked on a ICAO SARP advisory committee many years ago, as a pilot union rep handling instrument flying and charting. I remember three things about my times in Montreal:

    The ICAO building has no 13th floor.

    The dictionary in the huge main meeting room is the OED.

    And ‘commissary’ was a great place to buy liquour, as being part the UN it was truly Duty Free!

  7. Tom Haines
    Tom Haines says:

    Mike Smith: What does your statement have to do with AOPA? From what AOPA document do you purport that statement came from?

  8. Mike Smith
    Mike Smith says:

    I have yet to see a protest from AOPA against this silly, expensive and damaging attempt to squeeze the last drop of pollution from General Aviation, and all to satisfy the earth-god of global climate change, (actually a project of global communism—look it up!) global warming, global cooling, et cetera et nauseam!
    If you can find such an article criticizing, for example — “alternative fuels or energy sources” that always require taxpayer subsidy, please let me know. Our problem is Big Business that pays the bills has universally, as far as I know, sold out to the woke crowd who demand from their high horses that we bow to every politically correct mantra out there.

  9. Mike Smith
    Mike Smith says:

    By way of disclosure, my father was with the FAA and represented the U. S. in Montreal back when they decided on the VOR system. Though a career bureaucrat he always recommended against ever working for the government.

    And, with their now 80 year old technology, how DID Amoco economically produce no lead 100 octane?

  10. Michael
    Michael says:

    “…there are virtually no representatives from small aircraft or general aviation entities”

    ICAO was founded to harmonise regulations for International Civil Aviation, with emphasis on international. This does not include general aviation. At the end of the day it’s all about money. The airlines would have much higher costs if they had to deal with a different regulatory regime in each country, so they called on their governments to create ICAO to address this risk. Over time ICAO’s role has evolved to encompass environment, drones, etc.

    This article presents a view of ICAO as some high-falutin’ UN agency foisting rules upon the regulators of the world, but that is far from the truth. The U.S. – through the FAA and the NTSB – has a heck of a lot of influence in the halls of ICAO. Other special interest groups, such as those mentioned but especially IATA, are also effective at guiding the direction of SARPS. It is worth keeping in mind that the SARPS are internationally “agreed practices” not “best practices” as some people seem to think.

    To Mike Smith: aviation has a very challenging time ahead in reducing its environmental footprint. Your climate change denial comments are not helpful.


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