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The Inevitable Collapse of Aviation

This is not the first time that global aviation has been threatened with grounding. 

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne in Montreal

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  ~ Attributed to George Santayana

The Director General of Airports Council International (ACI World) Luis Felipe de Oliveira  is reported to have said at a briefing on 13 October 2020  that “The Covid-19 pandemic remains an existential crisis, and airports, airlines and their commercial partners need direct and swift financial assistance to protect essential operations and jobs…without this action, it is not an exaggeration that the industry is facing collapse”. Both the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – the association of airlines – and ACI World in a joint statement are also reported to have requested governments “to address the devastating impact of border closures and other government-imposed travel restrictions by supporting aviation’s viability through direct financial support”.  As an additional measure a request has gone out to the Council Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART) of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – the specialized agency of the United Nations which  overseas international civil aviation globally - to provide an internationally agreed approach to replace the quarantine requirements and travel restrictions that are currently stymieing connectivity.


It is a fact that over the past months, during which the Covid-19 pandemic raged throughout the world, the aviation industry  received some State aid calculated to keep the industry afloat and jobs retained. As to whether this has been adequate, and more is needed, is an economic issue for the pundits to resolve on the basis of Keynesian economic philosophy and the intrigues of international relations.  However, there is no room for doubt that a global problem which  portends the enormity of the current pandemic would require a global effort, whether it be in financing a moribund industry or in introducing an “internationally agreed approach to replace quarantine requirements and travel restrictions” now in place.  

This is not the first time that global aviation has been threatened with grounding.  Immediately consequent upon the atrocities of 9/11 which was directed geographically at the United States but resulted in global ramifications,  the London Aviation Insurance Market gave a week’s notice to all airlines that the war risk insurance clause in their aircraft insurances policies would be withdrawn within a week.  With the ominous threat of repeated terrorist acts looming, the States had no alternative but to temporarily ground their aircraft and seek solace in ICAO.  It is noteworthy that at this time aviation insurance was not in ICAO’s work programme nor had it had ever been.  In view of the dire threat to the sustainability of international air transport, ICAO, to its credit, sprang into action and convened a high level security conference, aimed at strengthening security against future attacks against aviation, while at the same time activating meetings to discuss a suitable global insurance scheme for both airlines and airports. 

At the high-level security conference, ICAO sought financial pledges from States to support aviation security.    In the current context of the pandemic, ICAO claims that the work of CART “is aimed at providing practical, aligned guidance to governments and industry operators in order to restart the international air transport sector and recover from the impacts of COVID-19 on a coordinated global basis”.  In this context CART is eminently placed to initiate global measures of cooperation to keep the aviation industry afloat. By ICAO’s own admission “the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic on global air transport is without precedent”. Never before, in the history of regulated international civil aviation has such a catastrophe befallen the industry.  ICAO’s meaning and purpose, as dictated by international treaty which gives the Organization credibility, hinges on inter alia on ensuring safe and orderly civil aviation which meets the needs of the people of the world for safe, regular, efficient, and economical air transport. 

It is incontrovertible therefore that both the financial sustenance as well as safety of air transport come within the parameters of the aims and objectives of ICAO. CART is advocating what it credibly calls a “restart and recovery” approach which has the following elements: protect people: harmonized but flexible measures; work as one aviation team and show solidarity; ensure essential connectivity; actively manage safety-, security- and health-related risks; make aviation public health measures work with aviation safety and security systems; strengthen public confidence; distinguish restart from recovery; support financial relief strategies to help the aviation industry; ensure sustainability; learn lessons to improve resilience.  While many  of these headings concentrate on safety and public health against the backdrop of passenger confidence, such headings as ensure essential connectivity,  distinguish restart from recovery; support financial relief strategies to help the aviation industry; ensure sustainability,  are seemingly on the right track in terms of sustainability of the aviation system.

A Report released by CART recommends that the above economic measures  “should be inclusive, targeted, proportionate, transparent, temporary and consistent with ICAO's policies, while striking an appropriate balance of interests without prejudice to fair competition. States and the civil aviation industry will need to commit towards building a more resilient air transport system, supported by clear communication and the recognition of aviation's vital role as a worldwide enabler, more so in times of crisis. In particular, States should identify and bridge gaps, with ICAO's assistance, to ensure adequate support to vulnerable segments of the international community and provision of essential services. A major element for future preparedness will involve analysing insights and experience gained from this crisis to improve processes and coordination mechanisms”. 

CART concludes that the success of aviation's recovery today and future resilience is best achieved with collective efforts among stakeholders across regions and  sectors. Quite apart from the health recommendations in the Report of CART, which are more compulsive and impossible for States to ignore, the economic measures are replete with the usual ICAO language: “States should provide the most appropriate means for supporting stakeholders across the civil aviation sector, if and when deemed necessary, (my emphasis); possibly through regional or international economic cooperation; these measures must be inclusive, targeted, proportionate, transparent, temporary, limited to what is necessary to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and consistent with ICAO's policies while striking an appropriate balance among the respective interests without prejudice to fair competition or compromising safety, security and environmental commitments. 

In all fairness, this might be as far as ICAO can go, language wise. However, the same recommendations made by CART could have been given by just about any group of sensible professionals with a foundation in diplomatic language. The issue is whether the offerings of CART would achieve what ACI and IATA have requested, which is certainly not “if and when needed”. .  One could well ask whether there could at least be a global meeting to discuss practical issues, such as those convened by ICAO after 9/11.  After all, if the United Nations General Assembly could be held on Zoom, there should be no problem for the ICAO Council to convene a similar meeting to discuss the practicalities of such an unprecedented cataclysm.  

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aviation law and policy at McGill University, prior to which his substantive career was at ICAO in senior positions at the Air Transport Bureau and The Legal Affairs and External Relations Bureau of the Organization.  

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