Restarting Air Transport

It is a platitude to say that the pandemic jump started States to focus on technology and accelerate research and development not merely from a medical and immunological perspective but also from a sociological perspective.  

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne in Montreal

The COVID-19 pandemic has been called the ‘great accelerator’ of digital transformation, with technology at the forefront of countries’ response to the crisis

Extracted from an article titled The Covid-19 Pandemic and Trends in Technology published by Chatham House on16 February 2021

Shards of rhetoric are emerging after one year of pandemic nightmare for air transport.  These bring tinges of hope heralding the restarting of international air transport.   Although to some, - particularly  those who have prognosticated that air transport will not be restored  to its pre 2019 levels until 2024 - this might sound like brazen chutzpah, others who are suffering from the fever of travel-deprivation must be rejoicing  at the good tidings.  For one,  The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – the United Nations specialized agency – has not been idle.  It has announced that “Under the TRAINAIR PLUS programme, ICAO and CAA International - the technical cooperation arm of the UK Civil Aviation Authority  - have jointly developed a virtual classroom course aimed at enabling the safe and secure restart of air operations after a prolonged period of inactivity due to a major global health risk event. Entitled CAA Preparation for Restarting Operations during a Pandemic, the course provides senior management in aviation regulators and industry organizations with safety and security oversight and surveillance guidance during the recovery phase of a global pandemic, such as COVID-19”. 

One feels confident that by this measure of  ICAO and CAAI – both highly respected and reputed entities striving for performance driven, values based and result oriented goals – are presenting a course that is well thought through, covering both the most obvious and hidden dimensions of a restart.  The most obvious dimension is of course the safety of public health to which air transport is the most ominous threat.  Already, literature on air transport and the pandemic  is  replete with recommendations and strategy carrying details of medical requirements and quarantine measures at global level. This is all well and good.  However, consideration must also be given to the less obvious dimension which is the cyber security threat. A plausible scenario. 

In 2016, member States of ICAO presciently adopted at the 39th ICAO Assembly Resolution A39-19 which  addressed cybersecurity in civil aviation.  This Resolution  sets out the actions to be undertaken by States and other stakeholders to counter cyber threats to civil aviation through a cross-cutting, horizontal, and collaborative approach, while instructing  ICAO to “lead and seek to attain a comprehensive cybersecurity work plan and governance structure with all relevant stakeholders”. Consequently, and in response, ICAO established the Secretariat Study Group on Cybersecurity (SSGC) which has been robustly active through its working groups. The work of the SSGC, including its working groups, comprises “the development of a draft cybersecurity strategy and development of important mechanisms for the sharing and exchange of relevant cybersecurity information. Furthermore, the SSGC has begun work on a data-driven risk management methodology across functional domains, incorporating various technologies of data collection and fusion”.

Directionally, this is seemingly a strategically  prudent way to go if one were to consider air transport as an isolated human activity which States should consider in mutual exclusivity to all other social activities of our existential being.  Regretfully, this is not reality. The pandemic has brought to bear the grim realization in us that air transport can prove to be a means of  devastation to the entire world, given that even the remotest areas of Canada are now infected with the COVID-19 virus. 

It is a platitude to say that the pandemic jump started States to focus on technology and accelerate research and development not merely from a medical and immunological perspective but also from a sociological perspective.  The latter is reflected well in the “tracking and tracing” dimension of the fight against the pandemic.  Here, technology is at the forefront with artificial intelligence and cyber security being prominent facets.  Public and private entities are involved in data collection and analysis and there has to be a guarantee that the use of data will be done in a balanced and harmonious way where privacy and security will be ensured.  In an article titled   The Covid-19 Pandemic and Trends in Technology published by Chatham House the authors say: “The issues encountered during the development of track-and-trace apps as part of the fight against COVID-19 have highlighted significant differences in levels of accountability and transparency between the public and private sectors. This has underlined the areas of tension between corporate power and the authority of democratically elected governments, and the capacity of tech companies not just to deploy ‘soft’ power in the form of lobbying, but also to block access to essential technologies”.  They continue: “As certain countries are now being accused of violating agreed norms during the pandemic, and with the increased blurring of the boundary between state and non-state cyber activity, the gulf between major cyber powers will likely only continue to grow. This could ultimately hinder progress in trying to build some consensus across the international community on the issue of future cyber norms; and, further, could negatively impact practical cooperation across borders on cybercrime and other cyber-related issues”.

There are no global cyber laws and until the status quo remains there is no purpose in addressing the restart of air transport from a security perspective on a piecemeal basis.  There is also no purpose in addressing security without taking a hard look at existing regulations and laws. The only aviation law applicable globally in this regard applies to communicable diseases spread through “air navigation”. Air transport is not only air navigation. ICAO has appropriately designated 2021 as the year of security culture.  This may carry with it the misleading nuance (which ICAO is not to be blamed for) that each of the 193 States should have a security culture “according to their particular circumstances”.  The security culture, when air transport is restarted, and the status quo ante prevails should be a global one applicable ex aequo to all. The pandemic is a global problem which requires States to transcend local boundaries to seek a global solution as enunciated by the United Nations Millennium Declaration, which is contained in General Assembly Resolution 55/2 of 8 September 2000, recognizes that, in addition to separate responsibilities of States to their individual societies, they have a collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level. 

When restarting air transport, we should not only think of air travel per se but also consider the consequences of air transport that impact our existential lives from a global perspective with focus on a common and consistent application of laws and regulations.

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aviation law and policy at McGill University.  He is a former Senior Legal Officer at ICAO.  Dr. Abeyratne ‘s latest book Aviation and the Pandemic: Legal, Regulatory, Economic and Ethical Issues is due to be released in mid 2021.

Post a Comment