Many American pilots may think of December 7, a date infamous for the dastardly use of aircraft, as an ironic choice for International Civil Aviation Day, but the date was not chosen at random. That day commemorates the signing of the Convention on International Civil Aviation in 1944, which created the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations. Since 1994, the fiftieth anniversary of the convention, the U.N. has proclaimed December 7 as “International Civil Aviation Day.”
Although still in the midst of World War II, representatives of 54 nations gathered in the Grand Ballroom of Chicago’s Stevens Hotel in 1944 to discuss international aviation in the postwar era.
In 1942, the U.S. Army purchased the swank hotel for use as a training center and barracks for Army Air Force cadets. The hotel could house up to 10,000 cadets, who used the ornate ballroom as a mess hall. After the war, Conrad Hilton bought the hotel and today you can sleep there; it’s the Hilton Chicago on South Michigan Avenue, not far from the former Meigs Field Airport. In 2003, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley illegally bulldozed Meigs Field’s runway in the middle of the night, in opposition to the FAA. The airfield is now a park.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur gave a noted speech at Stevens defending his leadership during the Korean War in 1951, and Chicago police clashed with Vietnam War protesters outside the hotel during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The hotel has hosted every American president in office since it opened 94 years ago.
The Convention on International Civil Aviation, also known as the Chicago Convention, took place from November 1 to December 7, 1944, to "make arrangements for the immediate establishment of provisional world air routes and services...and study data concerning international aviation and to make recommendations for its improvement.”
The convention established the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the U.N. agency vested with authority to coordinate most aspects of international civil aviation such as standards for air navigation, surveillance (in the sense of knowing where your aircraft are, not spying), air traffic control, radio communications, border-crossing procedures, preventing the interference of civil flights, and crash investigation protocols. Recently, ICAO has aided the development of standards for machine-readable and biometric passports. It even defines the international standard atmosphere, so that’s why we set our altimeters to 29.92.
Today, all U.N. member states are members of ICAO, except one. Liechtenstein doesn’t have an international airport and has delegated Switzerland to represent it. The Cook Islands are the only non-U.N. member. Although the principal U.N. offices are in the United States and Europe, ICAO is headquartered in Montreal, Canada. With advanced reservations, you can tour ICAO headquarters and the organization’s museum in downtown Montreal.
In 1996, on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Chicago Convention, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution proclaiming December 7 as International Civil Aviation Day. The day is meant to raise awareness of the role international civil aviation plays in the social and economic development of nations and ICAO’s role in coordinating international cooperation of aviation matters. As the resolution stated, “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.”
The General Assembly also urged governments and aviation organizations to promote and observe International Civil Aviation Day.
Every five years since 1994, ICAO announces a special theme for that year’s International Civil Aviation Day. Between these years, a single theme is declared for the intervening four-year period. For 2020 through 2023, ICAO selected the theme, “Advancing Innovation for Global Aviation Development.” As the ICAO statement reads, “A commitment to innovation has always been at the heart of aviation, and it has been instrumental to the continuous performance improvements countries have realized...for aviation safety, security, efficiency, and the economic and environmental sustainability of international operations.”
International Civil Aviation Day should remind everyone who flies on an airliner, receives a package via air cargo, or is employed by the aviation industry just how significant aviation is to the world’s economy. Every day, approximately 100,000 flights worldwide transport 10 million passengers and $18 billion of goods while directly employing more than 10 million people. Millions of additional jobs are supported indirectly, from the aviation fuel suppliers and aircraft manufacturers to those who supply the goods and services sold at airports. Some estimates suggest that aviation supports 45 million jobs within the tourism sector through increasingly affordable air transportation.
As U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated, “International aviation plays a key role in human affairs. It lets us discover our world’s wondrous geographic and cultural diversity. It enables us to learn about and benefit from each other. And it connects societies through global travel and trade.”