November 2, 2011 / 11:41 PM / 8 years ago

ICAO: Architect of the skies thrust into trade row

* UN body plunged into row over EU emissions plan

* ICAO designed blueprint for modern air travel

* Lightning rod for Cold War conflicts

By Tim Hepher

Nov 2 (Reuters) - Next time you squeeze into your middle-row airline seat and hear the instruction “fasten your seatbelt,” consider for a moment that you’re a small part of diplomatic history.

Almost every aspect of modern air travel, from safety briefings to security, navigation and medical exams for pilots, has been hashed out in a discreet backwater of the United Nations.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) sets standards for air travel as part of a plethora of international organizations that sprang up toward the end of World War II.

Its work is reassuringly low-key, with zero room for risk-taking or shortcuts as the 190-nation agency keeps watch over the global aviation system and its minuscule margin for error.

In all, ICAO sets 10,000 rules without which the connected lifestyle so many take for granted would simply be impossible.

“It all happens quietly and behind the scenes, but it makes it possible to fly all over the world quickly and on time,” said David MacKenzie, a history professor at Ryerson University in Toronto who has published a history of the 64-year-old body.

Now, the Montreal-headquartered agency has been thrust into a new role at the center of what could become the first serious carbon trade war, with a resolution adopted on Wednesday.

Urged on by the United States, China and others, ICAO called on the European Union to halt plans to tackle jet pollution through a cap-and-trade scheme.

The 26 nations form a majority of ICAO’s 36-nation governing council and have instructed the agency to press forward with attempts to come up with a better global plan within two years.

It is a challenging task for an entity created to oversee neatly bordered airspace, but which now seeks an elusive formula for tackling emissions that defy frontiers.

ICAO has no policing powers and has to rely on consensus to enforce its will. But non-European diplomats hope Wednesday’s declaration will put pressure on Brussels to back down.

“ICAO allows members to let off steam just like any other international organization,” MacKenzie said. “It can do what its members want and it gives them the machinery to express views on other things.”

Air travel is excluded from the World Trade Organization, even though the WTO referees the world’s largest trade dispute between plane manufacturers Airbus and Boeing .

COLD WAR MEETINGS

With its own parliamentary assembly and diplomatic machinery, ICAO has already served as a safe harbor for issues that member countries found too hot to handle elsewhere.

On occasions it became a forum for Cold War disputes that would otherwise pose grave risks.

Its chambers allowed the West to vent anger against Moscow after the shooting down of a Korean airliner by Soviet jets in 1983 without triggering a direct confrontation.

It became the scene of acrimonious disputes after allowing the Palestine Liberation Organization to have observer status in the 1970s, and there were tough debates about whether China should become a member, MacKenzie said.

But it also provided opportunities for discreet contacts as one of the few places where U.S. and Cuban officials could meet officially during an era of tensions over alleged hijackings, though there is no firm evidence such channels were ever used.

The agency has a major role in dealing with air piracy.

ICAO was created after the United States invited more than 50 allies to agree to a common air navigation system in 1944.

As World War Two wound down, planners wondered how to direct the know-how and energy invested in bombers toward passenger flight with a system able to support mass commercial aviation.

The resulting Chicago Convention called for the creation of ICAO, which was officially established in 1947.

The convention’s very first article — “every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over airspace above its territory” — is at the center of the new emissions row today.

Under EU plans, foreign airspace would form part of the calculations used to set charges. But the United States and other dissenting nations say this would violate sovereignty.

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