The Convention on International Civil Aviation, also known as the Chicago Convention, still governs commercial air traffic today through the international body it formed – the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Most flyers won’t know much about the Chicago Convention, but it affects the airlines, the routes and the prices we pay to this day.

History of the Chicago Convention

As Alex McWhirter has written for us,  “Towards the end of the Second World War, a group of wise men convened in Chicago. Their meeting was to result in the Chicago Convention of 1944, which would determine how civil aviation would function in the future.”

The eventual agreement was the Convention on International Civil Aviation (also known as Chicago Convention) which was signed on December 7, 1944 by 52 States and ratified over the next three years. ICAO cam into being in 1947 and became a specialized agency of the United Nations linked to Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Purpose of ICAO

The Convention on International Civil Aviation set forth the purpose of ICAO, recognising that the future development of international civil aviation can greatly help to create and preserve friendship and understanding among the nations and peoples of the world, yet its abuse can become a threat to the general security.”

To that end,

“WHEREAS the future development of international civil aviation can greatly help to create and preserve friendship and understanding among the nations and peoples of the world, yet its abuse can become a threat to the general security; and

WHEREAS it is desirable to avoid friction and to promote that co-operation between nations and peoples upon which the peace of the world depends;

THEREFORE, the undersigned governments having agreed on certain principles and arrangements in order that international civil aviation may be developed in a safe and orderly manner and that international air transport services may be established on the basis of equality of opportunity and operated soundly and economically;

Have accordingly concluded this Convention to that end.”

What is the Chicago Convention?

It is a multi-national agreement which created the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) which sets the regulations and safety standards that govern traveling on air and ensures that air fuel is not subjected to double taxation.

It established what are called ‘freedoms of the air’.  Best known of these is the ‘Fifth Freedom Right’ which is “the right or privilege, in respect of scheduled international air services, granted by one State to another State to put down and to take on, in the territory of the first State, traffic coming from or destined to a third State”

An example of this is Singapore Airlines which is currently expanding its Fifth Freedom flights from Europe.

The Sixth Freedom is also important – as can be seen from the situation of Finnair.

The Convention and the environment

When the Chicago Convention took place, and in subsequent decades, there was little concern for the environment, but today one aspect is under scrutiny. The Convention stipulates that kerosene used as fuel in international civil aviation may not be subject to taxation, yet many environmental organisations believe that this exemption from taxation keeps the price of aviation artificially low, and it should be taxed just as most other forms of transport fuels (diesel, petrol, oil and gas) are taxed.

In the EU a kerosene tax could be levied, since under the Energy Taxation Directive (2003/96/EG) of 27 October 2003 member states have the option of introducing such a tax on commercial domestic flights and flights between member states, though as yet, none have done so.

The EU is not bound by the Chicago Convention nor by policies of ICAO not to do so, nor by fuel tax exemptions granted to foreign carriers in past ASAs by member states themselves

NGO Transport & Environment has released a legal opinion that the taxation would be legal since

“The Chicago Convention only bans the taxation of fuel on board an aircraft on arrival in the territory of a state (Art. 24 of the Chicago Convention). It doesn’t ban taxing fuel which is uplifted. Further going resolutions of the ICAO Council are not legally binding but soft law.”

At present, it seems unlikely to happen.