What Is The Chicago Convention And Why Does It Matter?

As stated to in our article on the five freedoms of the air, aviation is a uniquely regulated industry. Indeed, the sector is managed through bilateral, transnational, and international, agreements and institutions. Yet, the seminal agreement of the global aviation industry is the Chicago Convention of 1944. Here, we explore the Convention’s history and the establishment of the aviation world order through the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Signing of the Chicago Convention of 1944
The signing of the Convention on International Civil Aviation at Chicago, 1944. Photo: Family of Dominique Hymans / Wikimedia Commons

The history before, and behind, the Convention

The desire to create a harmonious system for international air travel can be traced to pioneering French aviation lawyer, Paul Fauchille. In 1900, he recommended the establishment of international air navigation standards long before the industry existed in any commercial form. In 1903, Fauchille and the French Government attempted to create a treaty on airspace sovereignty, without success.

It wasn’t until the after the First World War that states sought to regulate the air through international law. In 1919, 27 states signed the Convention portant réglementation de la navigation aérienne, the Paris Convention of 1919, establishing exclusive sovereign jurisdiction of national airspace.

Lignes Aeriennes Latécoére / Aeropostale
International aviation at the time faced many technical limitations as seen with this  Salmson 2 Berline of Latécoére Airlines (later Aéropostale), circa 1918. Photo: DR Rdl / Wikimedia Commons

In 1944, the United States invited others to Chicago with the goal of establishing a new aviation order. Although the U.S. had a varied history regarding multilateralism, it hoped that this new system, premised on free-market ideals and relative liberalization, would favor the already dominant American aerospace industry. The Chicago Conference of 1944 would come to be known as the Convention on International Civil Aviation, or the Chicago Convention.

Contents of the Convention

Unfortunately for the U.S., it’s aspirations to ensure a U.S. dominated and liberalized aviation order would not be achieved. Competing interests between the U.S. and European nations ensured that national sovereignty, as prescribed by the 1919 Paris Convention, would be reaffirmed. Moreover, national priorities arguably re-entrenched the importance of states in international aviation, at a cost to commercial entities.

What Is The Chicago Convention And Why Does It Matter?
The inclusion of neutral countries such as Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal, led the USSR and Saudi Arabia to boycott the 1944 Chicago Conference.  Photo: Swissair Archive / Wikimedia Commons

As for market liberalization, the Convention, or more aptly the signatories, avoided the issue of market access and economic privileges. Instead, the conference of parties became most concerned on technical issues. These included those surrounding navigation and aircraft registration, for example.

The creation of the (Provisional) International Civil Aviation Association

As part of the wider Chicago process, the signatories agreed to create an organization to assist states with international aviation. This was particularly with regards to technical, advisory, and harmonization issues.

This proposed organization would be known as PICAO and have its seat in Canada. PICAO was to be replaced by a permanent organization within three years, after the ratification of the Chicago Convention by 26 states. In 1947, Spain became the 26th country to ratify Chicago and thus PICAO was disbanded and replaced by ICAO, a United Nations agency.

What Is The Chicago Convention And Why Does It Matter?
Like PICAO, ICAO has its international Headquarters in Montreal, Canada. Photo: Henrickson / Wikimedia Commons

Like PICAO, ICAO would use the Chicago Convention as its charter, ensuring that the institution remains focused around nine core goals.  With its objectives ranging from safety and navigation to economic development and environmental protection, ICAO is certainly a fundamental institution for the proper functioning of international aviation.