#MH370 Is it time to revise ICAO?

The way that the world’s civil aviation is organised and administered was decided in 1944 by the Chicago Convention of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, part of the UN (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convention_on_International_Civil_Aviation). This Convention came into force in 1947.  At that time, civil aircraft were based largely on military designs from World War II and were not particularly reliable.  Long-range airliners needed four engines because they would often land on three, such was the poor reliability of those large piston engines.  There were few airliners that could directly cross the Atlantic westwards and even New York to London required a stop at Shannon or Prestwick.  To fly to Australia would take a week.  How different the world is now; London to Singapore is a nonstop flight.

One of the things that ICAO established was that air accident investigation should be the responsibility of the state of registry and the air accident investigators had to be independent of the safety regulators.  Now, in 1947 most civil aircraft were operated by countries that had an aircraft industry; US, Canada, UK, France, NL as examples. Establishing competent organisations was therefore easy because there was a big talent pool of experienced engineers.  Hence we have NTSB in the USA, AAIB in the UK and BEA in France, to name but three.  Their role is to investigate air accidents, to find the causes and to recommend actions so that those accidents never happen again.  Their success is that modern airliners are now safer than buses or trains and a hellova lot safer than cars.

The disappearance of Malaysian Flight MH370 has, however, highlighted the limitations of this 70-year old idea.  The poor old Malaysians are trying to carry out their international obligations but have neither the resources nor the experience to do it.  They have done their best but this mystery would fox Sherlock Holmes, and they are completely out of their depth.  At today’s press conference, the Malaysian minister of transport asked for more international cooperation and, of course, he will get it.  He’s already got it, actually.  They already have NTSB there as the aircraft was built in the USA and that is correct procedure.  They also have AAIB there as the engines are British.  BEA are there because they have experience of a somewhat similar disappearance in AF447.  But the accident has involved 26 countries and that could never have been foreseen 70 years ago.

I wrote a novel in 2011, http://getBook.at/FlightIntoDarkness, which set out a similar accident.  That is, the world’s safest aircraft disappears.  Why?  This idea was triggered by a realisation that modern airliners are so reliable and safe that a catastrophic failure just doesn’t happen.  If there is a crash then it’s usually caused by a number of unusual problems occurring at the same time coupled with some bad luck, bad judgement or criminal activity.  The Kegworth 737, for example or AF447.  Or 9/11.

In the global village, I wonder whether we need a new international air accident investigator that is partly engineering-based, partly police.  Aviation is now completely international; parts of all Boeings are made all over the world, Airbuses are made all over Europe and in China.  The industry is essentially borderless, just like airspace.  Therefore shouldn’t air accident investigation be borderless as well?  I envisage a combination of AAIB/NTSB and Interpol, an organisation that is part of the UN. With so many small countries having great airlines (such as UAE, Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain, Singapore) this organisation would be ready placed to investigate anything anywhere and not require smaller states of registry to set up an organisation that would not be able to carry out its obligations.

We already have the people.  Really.  When I was working for the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), I was often irritated by AAIB investigators looking into ‘occurrences’ (not even accidents) that were, frankly, trivial.  I thought they were wasting their (and my) time.  The reason why they are doing this is that they are established as part of UK’s international obligations under ICAO but aviation is now so safe that there is little for them to do.  I believe that he NTSB has a similar problem but the good guys need to be there when they’re needed.  Until then, they drink coffee.  Let them be employed by an international AAIB/NTSB.

Flight Darkness Thumb I actually postulated this in http://getBook.at/FlightIntoDarkness.

I wonder if it will ever happen.  It needs to.  Aircraft accidents get weirder and weirder.


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