U.N. Calls for Better Air-Traffic Coordination

In an effort to reduce global airline accident rates, an arm of the United Nations called for the improvement of air-traffic control systems on a global scale.

The initiative was laid out at a meeting convened by the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization that started this week in Montreal, where more than 1,100 industry officials and government aviation regulators gathered to debate how to better coordinate introduction of new traffic-control equipment and procedures.

It was the first time such a broad range of experts—representing more than 190 countries—sought to directly tie crash-prevention efforts to improved air-traffic management. There is a “change in emphasis and focus by explicitly linking those two things,” according to Nancy Graham, the senior ICAO official overseeing the issue. Widespread air-traffic control improvements are “critical to achieve a further reduction in the global accident rates,” she told the conference.

The effort comes at the same time ICAO released its annual safety scorecard, showing that in 2011 the world-wide accident rate for scheduled passenger and cargo operations remained at four crashes per one million flights. The report underscores that overall global crash rates have remained essentially flat for more than seven years, though total fatalities have dropped sharply. ICAO reported 414 fatalities last year, versus more than 820 in 2005 and 707 in 2010.

As part of extensive industry and government safety initiatives over that period, ICAO focused largely on issuing recommended safety practices and then prodding national authorities to step up their enforcement programs. Now, ICAO increasingly sees air-traffic control modernization as the next strategic step to help drive down airliner crashes

But at the same time, ICAO’s new emphasis is aimed at helping many countries, particularly in parts of Asia and the Pacific region, cope with substantial anticipated growth in air traffic over the next two decades. “We have tremendous growth in some regions,” according to Ms. Graham, and “there is a real need to address that in a responsible way” so “we don’t introduce a safety problem.”

Roberto Kobeh Gonzalez, president of the ICAO Council, said the results of the conference will set a new course by agreeing that air-traffic control upgrades “can no longer be based on national and domestic considerations.” Without such consensus, Mr. Gonzalez said, the global aviation system won’t be able to effectively handle growth projected to climb to 6 billion passengers a year by 2030, versus about 2.7 billion currently.

Over that stretch, ICAO expects the number of annual flights to double to 60 million. Officials said more-advanced traffic management techniques will be essential to head off potential gridlock and increased delays in fast-growing regions

The draft air-traffic control plan goes beyond policy guidelines, by including recommended implementation schedules and performance standards for upgraded systems. China, several African countries and other governments are pushing for a more leeway to determine the specifics and timing of improvements. ICAO’s air navigation conference, held once every decade, is expected to approve a range of recommendations reflecting concerns of developing countries.

The document reflects a shift for ICAO in other ways. Ms. Graham and others said it’s the first time the organization has worked so closely with industry representatives in drawing up suggested long-term navigation improvements.

Europe and the U.S. already are pushing ahead with what are intended to be complementary approaches to replace ground radars with satellite-based air-traffic control networks. The proposals aren’t expected to have much impact on those endeavors.

But before many other parts of the world can enjoy safety and capacity benefits from modernizing traffic management, ICAO believes regulators must commit that national and regional systems will seamlessly work together. Unless that happens, airliners wouldn’t be able to rely on the same onboard technology to fly anywhere around the globe.
Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2012