Remarks to the International Aviation Club of Washington, DC

Thomas Carter, U.S. Ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization
Washington, DC
May 7, 2019

As Prepared

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s indeed a pleasure to be back in DC for a few days and to have the opportunity to share some thoughts about ICAO with you all. As a southern boy, I must admit that my two winters in Canada have been a bit of an eye opener for me, but as I’ve told my bride, we’ll find our way back to the beaches of South Carolina in due time. By the way, it’s been the longest winter of low temperatures for Montreal in 22 years!

When asked by the White House to consider this job, I truly thought that I’d have the opportunity to deal with matters that would be relevant to ICAO’s core missions — the safety and security of international aviation. I frequently tell audiences that are a bit less sophisticated than this one that my principal job is to make sure that there are “as many landings as takeoffs.” This certainly could not be more important than in today’s aviation environment, particularly as ICAO is about to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Chicago Convention later this year.

Yet, much to my dismay, I’ve also found that I’ve had to spend a lot of my time dealing with ICAO institutional issues. I’ve discovered an entrenched bureaucracy at ICAO that is having a hard time maintaining a focus on its core priorities. There are a lot of issues out there – a lot of “good to do” in the aviation world – but resources are limited. Focus at ICAO needs to be maintained on bringing all member states up to satisfactory levels of compliance in the safety and security realm. For example, only two-thirds of member states are at a 65% compliance threshold (that’s 65%, not 100%) of effective implementation of already established security standards. With the terrorist threat we face today, all of us should find this statistic completely unsatisfactory, and we need to be asking ourselves how to fix this core problem. The United States is the biggest financial contributor to the organization – because the aviation sector is a driving force in our economy, and the world. So when ICAO seems to want to take on more and more issues that are tangential to the core missions of safety and security, we need to provide a reality check.

How do we make the institution more effective, so it can focus on its core missions? It starts from within. I work closely with Administration officials in Washington, and I know that a big focus for the U.S. is on making international institutions more transparent, efficient and effective. Over the last year, I have had to spend a lot of time, unfortunately, encouraging the ICAO Secretariat to develop an effective Ethics Program – more time spent than on any other single issue. To attract good people and ensure those people have a work environment in which to succeed, the organization needs to operate with integrity. And to put it bluntly, when I arrived there was absolutely nowhere to turn if an individual ICAO employee had a legitimate complaint of wrongdoing. For the entire year of 2017 prior to my arrival, I understand that 16 formal complaints were filed, with only one matter investigated, and that individual admitted to financial fraud.

That situation needed to change. The 2011 report of the UN’s Joint Inspection Unit recommended that “The legislative bodies of UN system organizations … should direct their executive heads to ensure that internal oversight and investigation units are authorized to initiate investigations without the executive head’s prior approval.” This was not happening at ICAO and thus, an atmosphere that allowed sexual harassers, bullies, and you name it, was being tolerated. It’s no wonder that ICAO had nearly 100 full-time position vacancies at the end of 2018.

But I’m happy to report that we’ve now created an Investigations Committee of three individuals who review complaints and recommend them for investigation — independent of the Secretary General’s oversight, which is as it should be, and a much more efficient use of resources. The Secretary General will have ultimate responsibility for determining punishments but rest assured that the Council will be monitoring these cases for resolution.

Also, you may have heard of some other institutional problems within the organization. Earlier this year, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation article appeared that included some appalling allegations regarding a November 2016 cyber hack of ICAO’s entire IT system, and its subsequent cover-up. ICAO’s corporate response was that the reports were “over exaggerated.” In fact, Council members have subsequently learned that ICAO’s network had been compromised for quite some time and that both member states and contractors had to fend off attacks from malware that emanated from the ICAO system. To put in bluntly, ICAO systems were totally exposed by a foreign state actor, and two completely independent forensic investigations proved this to be true. The way the hacks – by the way, not just one, but four – were handled was unacceptable.

The Council recently expressed a significant lack of confidence in the existing IT system’s security and recommended concrete steps towards determining, once and for all, if there is still malware within ICAO’s domain. Only time will tell. But regardless, the lack of resolve on the part of the Secretariat to deal with the issue in a transparent way, and the effort to downplay the severity of the breach, was truly regrettable. As a matter of fact, when the article broke, some in the Secretariat were more concerned about finding the leaker than giving the Council an accurate portrayal of what actually happened. If there’s a silver lining in this cloud, though, it’s become clear that we need to strengthen the Whistleblower Protection Program at ICAO and the Council has also made that a priority. All of this of leads me to say something that I’ve yearned to say since all of this started, and that is “thanks for a free press.” We, as Council Representatives of our countries, would not have known about the inadequate response to the hacks or the immense harm that they inflicted on ICAO’s IT systems without the CBC article.

What I’ve witnessed during my time in Montreal is that it takes Member State pressure for ICAO to address the very issues that compromise its integrity and limit its effectiveness. This is frustrating because we have important things to accomplish. We need ICAO to step up and be a leader that we can trust and that addresses real world aviation issues that stand to affect us all.

Now, I probably need to stop with the “inside ball” as too many tales of bureaucracy will put you to sleep, and instead I’ll talk about some of those critical real world aviation issues. It’s an Assembly year, and as I mentioned, we’re celebrating 75 years of the Chicago Convention. What is the U.S. looking at for the next 75? Aviation safety and security, as I have mentioned, will continue to be at the forefront. I want to highlight some ways that our efforts at ICAO will work toward making us safer.

Issues such as improving aviation security, or tracking aircraft lost in remote parts of the world, or attention to aircrew training and use of automation – these are all high on my scope and are examples of where we need both U.S. and ICAO leadership.

On the issue of security, I should mention that the UN Security Council put forward a call for action in its 2017 Resolution 2309 on aviation security, which obliges member states to raise security globally to meet terrorist threats. In response ICAO produced a Global Aviation Security Plan. The content of the plan is good, but we would like to see more urgency around implementing the priorities it describes. The plan projects five to ten years to enhance risk awareness and response — really? If you watch the news, you know that we need action now, not tomorrow or five years from now.

So, we are pushing for some specific improvements in aviation security. The U.S. has proposed that ICAO study the feasibility of making the Security and Facilitation Branch of the ICAO Air Transport Bureau an independent bureau in itself. This study is taking place right now but we’re facing some internal resistance from countries who don’t want to see personnel taken from the particular branch where security issues presently reside. Our effort is simply to elevate security to the same importance level as safety, because — if you just read a paper or watch the news – you know security is a terribly important issue.

Also, we’ve asked that collection of Passenger Name Record data or PNR be elevated to a Standard. UNSCR 2396, which was unanimously passed in December 2017, requires ICAO to do this very thing, yet the ICAO Secretariat did not make it a priority until we raised the issue at last November’s High Level Security Conference. As most of you are not familiar with this concept, we basically ask countries to review airplane reservation data and a passenger’s past flying history to determine hidden connections to other travelers and patterns of activity that give security folks a better way of assessing a traveler’s potential to commit hostile acts. The U.S. has been doing this for over 20 years and has caught some very bad people. We want other countries to benefit from our experience and use similar methods to detect and stop terrorists from traveling.

On the second subject I mentioned, which is how does anyone, in this day and time, completely lose an aircraft, I’m sure that most of you are somewhat familiar with ICAO’s efforts towards effective standards that will hopefully prevent another tragedy like Malaysian Air 370 in the future. In November 2018, the GADSS, or Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System, started requiring aircraft position reporting every 15 minutes, and it seems to be working well. And we have a target date of 2021 for systems that can report an aircraft in distress’ coordinates every minute, which will hopefully lead to a time when finding an aircraft’s location can be limited to a roughly six nautical mile radius.

And finally, on a topic out of today’s headlines, I need to address the single most visible aviation safety issue today and that’s the B737 MAX. I’m keeping tabs on the very methodical process that our FAA is pursuing to get the MAX back online and from my perspective, it’s clearly an international issue with implications for ICAO. I’m already been contacted by groups here in DC about reviewing ICAO standards but of course, we’ll wait until we get both accident investigation reports to determine exactly what changes may be needed. Having three thousand hours and a type rating in the B737 myself, I can assure you that I have more than a passing interest in this subject.

But overall, for ICAO’s 40th Assembly which begins in September, we’ll continue to focus on these safety and security issues, and we’re also considering proposing some significant organizational reform that emphasizes greater transparency at ICAO, something that, as I mentioned earlier, is lacking terribly today.

Allow me to stop here and take a few questions if there are some. Hopefully I can give you some answers but if not, I pledge to get back to you directly.