31 December 2014

Discord at the 1944 Chicago Conference and the Formation of ICAO

Adolf Berle, FDR's aviation advisor
Early in the Second World War, the Allied powers were already giving consideration to the commercial importance of aviation in a postwar world. In 1941, Secretary of State Cordell Hull placed a brilliant diplomat and lawyer under him, Adolf Augustus Berle, in charge of aviation affairs. Berle soon became President Franklin D. Roosevelt's primary advisor on commercial aviation affairs. Berle saw the postwar potential for aviation threatened by two factors- on one hand were what he thought were outdated imperial notions espoused by the British and on the other hand were ruthless commercial interests typified by Juan Trippe, the chairman of Pan American Airways. Given his legal background, Berle sought to construct a legal framework to govern aviation commerce worldwide and keep powerful political interests and business interests in check. By 1943, Berle had Roosevelt's approval to forge ahead with an international conference to be held before war's end to start laying down the ground rules for postwar commercial aviation. His concepts were for what today would be called "open skies". By the 1943 Quebec Conference, Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt had on their agenda the discussion of postwar aviation policy in addition to the primary discussion of war strategy. At their meeting, Roosevelt established that open skies would be the United States position on postwar commercial aviation and the wheels were set in motion for an international aviation conference to be held the following year in Chicago. 

British aviation interests were forwarded by Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook. During the war as Minister of Aircraft Production he was instrumental in streamlining and increasing the efficiency of British aircraft production to meet wartime needs. Britain saw aviation as the key to retaining its Empire with far flung bases in its many dependencies and Commonwealth nations that would rival the American network of bases. However, many in the British government saw that despite wartime production demands, the American aviation industry still managed to design and build civilian aircraft as well as hold the technological lead in bomber designs that would undoubtedly influence postwar airliner designs. Combined with the already legendary ruthlessness of Juan Trippe at Pan American Airways, the development of postwar British aviation policy became one of protectionism- safeguard the economic livelihood of the British aircraft industry, maintain the British Empire and use British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) as the primary means of maintaining the aviation links of Britain's far flung empire. 

With the Americans and the British certain to dominate the upcoming 1944 Chicago Conference, a third party emerged that would have great influence as well, and that was the Canadians. During the Second World War, Canada was of strategic importance in that it sat astride not just the North Atlantic sea lanes to support the war effort in Europe, but it also had key landing fields that formed the western terminus of the North Atlantic air routes to Europe. As long as aircraft were unable to cross the Atlantic non-stop, Canada was a necessity in the any postwar discussion. Led by the chairman of Trans-Canada Airlines (TCA, which later became Air Canada), Herbert Symington, the Canadians not only presciently saw the North Atlantic air routes as lucrative in the postwar period, but they also saw themselves as conciliators between the American and British viewpoints. Lacking Britain's extensive aviation industry and far flung empire, in general the Canadians tended to lean towards the United States' position of open skies. In the run up to the 1944 Chicago Conference, Canadian diplomats were already playing the part of honest broker between the Americans and the British. 

Given the time, it's obvious the Axis powers weren't invited. The Soviets were invited but early on they made it clear they were dead set against any internationalization of commercial aviation. As far as Josef Stalin was concerned, any air traffic within their vast nation would be their sole domain only and would only connect with other airlines at specific points. 

With the formation of the United Nations in October 1945, the Americans formally invited all the signatories to the UN charter to the Chicago Conference in November to discuss postwar aviation policy. Initially the Soviet Union agreed to send a delegation but backed out of the conference the day before it opened. The only nation not present in Chicago besides the Soviet Union was Saudi Arabia. 

Lord Swinton, head of the UK delegation
Adolf Berle led the American delegation at Chicago and Herbert Symington led the Canadian delegation. Curiously, Lord Beaverbrook didn't attend and instead sent one of his deputies, Philip Cunlife-Lister, the First Lord of Swinton, as head of the British delegation. He had just been appointed as the new Minister of Aviation though his prior experience in aviation paled in comparison to his superior, Lord Beaverbrook. Unfortunately for the British, they didn't place the priority on the Chicago Conference that the Americans and Canadians did. Even some of the British delegation present failed to attend any of the sessions where more specific discussions took place. 

At the opening of the conference, Berle outlined the five freedoms of the air: 

1. Freedom to fly over a nation (today we'd call this overflight rights).
2. Freedom to land in a nation but without picking up passengers or freight (today we'd call this a technical stop).
3. Freedom to fly passengers and freight from the home nation to another nation.
4. Freedom to fly passengers and freight from another nation back to the home nation. 
5. Freedom to fly passengers or freight of a another nation between any two intermediate points (today we refer this as Fifth Freedom rights or cabotage, a contentious issue in commercial aviation).

The first two freedoms weren't too contentious and for obvious reasons- there was no economic benefit or harm to the involved parties. But invoking its protectionist stand, Swinton pushed for a system of quotas in relation to the third and fourth freedoms to prevent what he thought would be postwar flood of American airlines starting services to British cities. France, Australia, and New Zealand supported Swinton's quota system where service frequencies and the number of passengers would be tightly controlled to prevent domination by the Americans. Key to the quota system was "escalation" which was supported by the British aircraft industry- as they were able to recover from wartime production and shift to production of airliners to rival American designs, the quotas would be gradually relaxed as the British (and any of their supporters) got onto a more competitive footing. 

The American delegation led by Adolf Berle wouldn't have any of it. It was clearly apparent to the attendees that Adolf Berle and Lord Swinton had a genuine dislike of each other and it was up to Herbert Symington and the Canadians to try to bridge the divide. The Canadians proposed a less stringent system that tried to take into account both American and British positions. It was at this point with both the Americans and British unwilling to give ground that a series of errors in communication would harm British interests. Lord Swinton contacted Lord Beaverbrook for further instructions but he was unavailable. When Beaverbrook called back, Swinton blew him off due to the hour with the classic quote "Max, go to hell, it's three o'clock in the morning here!" Beaverbrook then sent a telegram stating "You may abandon escalation." To the relief of the attendees, the British announced their concession to go with the Canadian proposal on regulating the third and fourth freedoms. After their announcement, a second telegram from Beaverbrook arrived "Before 'abandon', insert 'not'", but it was too late as Swinton told Beaverbrook "A British delegation does not go back on its word."

With agreement now on the third and fourth freedoms (which today we know as bilateral air agreements), the conference moved on to the hot button topic, that of Fifth Freedom rights. Again, the British refused to budge from their protectionist position and Prime Minister Churchill himself made it known that Fifth Freedom rights were unacceptable. President Roosevelt himself tried to convince Churchill to yield, saying "It has been a cardinal point in American policy throughout that the ultimate judge should be the passenger and shipper."Churchill pushed for an adjournment of the Chicago Conference to a later date, but Roosevelt insisted that it would continue until an agreement was reached. Herbert Symington, leading the Canadian delegation, supported the Americans and they also insisted that the conference would continue until an agreement was reached. Soon the Latin American nations joined the American resolution. The crucial swing came when the Dutch, keenly aware the British restrictions threatened KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, joined the Americans along with other European nations. Only New Zealand, France, and Australia supported the British. Churchill still refused to budge and Roosevelt continued his own intervention with Churchill, even to the point of assuring him that American airliner designs would be as readily available to British airlines as they would be with American operators. One of the American delegates, Ralph Damon, who was president of American Airlines (and later would be a long time head of TWA) even went as far to offer the British fifty Douglas DC-4s if they would at least compromise. 

The ICAO flag
The Dutch delegation with the support of the Canadians put forth a compromise in which the first two freedoms were explicitly recognized (something that was already the case anyway), the third and fourth freedoms would be subject to individual review between the involved nations, and the fifth freedom was essentially tabled for later discussion. While Adolf Berle was bitter at the failure of his dream of open skies, he did get his legal framework. At the conclusion of the conference, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was set up under the aegis of the United Nations as a means for nations to exchange and maintain aviation regulations. The headquarters would be in Montreal-this was a compromise from the Canadians once again, with Britain and France wanting ICAO based in Europe and the Americans wanting ICAO based in the United States. The first president of ICAO was an respected American aeronautical engineer, Edward Warner, who would serve at the head of ICAO until his retirement in 1957. Today the ICAO has the Edward Warner Award given to for meritorious accomplishment in civil aviation. 

ICAO is the true legacy of the 1944 Chicago Conference. It created a mechanism for not just the exchange of regulations and safety advances in aviation but also a means for the standardization of the protocols and procedures in civil aviation worldwide. The Freedoms of the Air continue to be a contentious issue with open skies agreements coming only after considerable struggle amongst the signatory nations. Most remarkable has been the transformation of the United States from being an advocate for open skies to being protectionist of the domestic airline market with not just restrictions on cabotage but also foreign investment in US airlines. 

Source: Empires of the Sky: The Politics, Contests, and Cartels of the World Airlines by Anthony Sampson. Random House, 1984, pp 62-71. Photos: Wikipedia.

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