What is the International Civil Aviation Organization?

International Civil Aviation OrganizationTo prevent disaster among the 100,000 planes filling the global skies each day, the International Civil Aviation Organization was founded in the 1940s to oversee and coordinate safe air navigation with member states throughout the world. A specialized agency of the United Nations, the ICAO specifically develops plans and recommendations for safety as well as regulates the overall growth of international air transport.

How It Was Formed

Once global air travel began to rapidly expand, there was a clear need for an overarching regulatory agency to moderate growth and maintain order. The charter for the International Civil Air Organization was signed in 1944 at the Convention on International Civil Aviation in Chicago. Of the 193 United Nations member countries, 190 signed the new charter.

How It Works

Within the ICAO is the Air Navigation Commission, which is made up of 19 Commissioners who are nominated by members of the ICAO. These are objective, air travel experts who harbor no country-specific agendas. They are the ‘hands-on’ team that writes the Standards and Recommended Practices, or SARPS. The SARPS address air navigation, regulate the inspection of all flight routes, departures and approaches, and ensure there is sufficient global support for dependable operation of procedures. Individual countries use these standards when setting up their own rules, regulations and laws for aviation. Today there are approximately 10,000 SARPS.

Specific Responsibilities

Each country is charged with assembling a publication with information and data essential to safe flying, including regulations and procedures about airspace and airports in that country. Countries also agree to immediately deal with and publish temporary issues. The ICAO sets International Standard Atmosphere that deals with changes in pressure, temperature, density and viscosity at various levels in the atmosphere. This helps keep instruments correctly calibrated and accurate for uniform safety in the skies. The organization also develops procedures to deal with unlawful interference and border crossings in international aviation.


The three countries that did not sign on as members of the ICAO at the Chicago Convention, and remain non-members, are Dominica, Lichtenstein and Tuvalu. A listing of all member countries is available on the International Civil Aviation Organization website. Ever since it was founded in 1944, the headquarters has been in Montreal, Canada. Regional offices are located throughout the world including in Bangkok, Nairobi, Paris, Cairo, Mexico City, Lima and Dakar. All member states appoint a representative to the organization and Michael A. Lawson is the present U.S. representative. The current ICAO president is Dr. Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu of Nigeria.

Air Accidents

In spite of arduous efforts to keep the skies safe, air accidents are inevitable. The ICAO deals with procedures for air accident investigations that are used by the transport safety authorities in countries that have signed the Convention on International Civil Aviation. Most air accident investigations are actually handled by the country in which they occur.

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Air travel today is amazingly safe given the astronomical volume of flights each day. Recognized as one of the most effective organizations in the world, the work of the International Civil Aviation Organization epitomizes this first sentence of its mission statement perfectly: To serve as the global forum of States for international civil aviation.