The former Regional Director of ICAO’s Asia and Pacific Office, Mr. Lalit Bikram Shah accompanied by his wife, paid a visit to Bangkok, Thailand recently, where he met some of the current ICAO APAC Office team over lunch. They asked him about his experiences and his thoughts on where the industry is today. The conversation was so interesting, we asked him if we could turn it into an interview. We’re sharing Mr. Shah’s insight here.
Q: Could you briefly describe your involvement in aviation? What was your journey like until you became the ICAO APAC Regional Director in 1993?
A: My journey in Aviation can be termed as being very colourful, complex, stressfully, challenging and exquisitely enriching – a wide era covering overseeing DC-3 operations to the arrivals of Concorde, Boeing 747 and A-380. Navigation was very rudimentary, moving on from basic NDBs, ADFs to sophisticated radars, from basic dead-reckoning to operating in scientifically managed airspace and air routes.
My association with civil aviation began in 1962 when I graduated as an air traffic controller from the Civil Aviation Training Centre in Bangkok. From 1962 to 1992, I was with the Department of Civil Aviation Nepal including eight illustrious years as Director General, which gave me the rare opportunity to oversee almost all of the intricate aspects of domestic aviation to international civil aviation.
Additionally, the journey included me acquiring a PPL from Oxford Flying School in Carlisle, UK, then a CPL with IR from Burnside, Florida and a type conversion on DHC-6 in De-Havilland, Canada. I also underwent special courses at the FAA Academy in USA and Bournemouth College in UK, apart from attaining a master’s degree in English in 1969.
A: Becoming the Regional Representative of ICAO’s Regional Office for Asia and Pacific Regions in Bangkok on 27 January 1993, in a way completed the full circle of my journey. From memory, some of the significant events that shaped my leadership of the APAC Office, include the following:
- Implementation of EMARSSH (Europe Middle East Asia Air Routes South of Himalayas) Routes bringing in benefits of US$ 55 million plus annually to the airline industry.
- Establishing of APAC COSCAPs for South Asia, Southeast Asia and North Asia for enhancing safety in the sub-regions.
- Implementation of RVSM thus enhancing air space capacity and efficiency tremendously.
- Signing of the agreement leading to the implementation of the South China Sea Route Structure, an issue that was highly sensitive and was pending for over 18 years entailing numerous meetings, some at the Head of States level. (Note: I had the rare opportunity with my team serving and leading the various negotiations personally, working under the direct and remarkable guidance of the late Dr. Assad Kotaite, President of ICAO Council, a person of par excellence persona possessing immense patience in exercising persuasive diplomacy).
- Negotiations between DPRK and ROK leading to resolution for the opening of airspace culminating in signing of the relevant agreement during the annual conference of Directors General of Civil Aviation in the Asia and Pacific Region, hosted by DGCA India in New Delhi.
- Sustaining and enhancing the annual Conference of Directors General of Civil Aviation in the Asia and Pacific Region. (Note: My personal involvement with the event commenced in the year 1978 on behalf of DCA Nepal and continued from 1993 on joining ICAO, till my retirement in 2007, I continue to be a keen believer in the value, acceptance and sanctity of this forum, whose characteristic is unique and held highly in its collective value by all the States of the Asia and Pacific Regions. On my final attendance as the Secretary serving of the DGCA Conference hosted by China, I was greatly honoured in receiving an instrument pointing out both leadership and contribution signed by the Heads of Delegates of all the attending States and Industries. I cherish this document very much and hold it close to my heart).
- Establishment of the Kotaite Wing in the APAC Regional Office with the close support and approval of the host country, the Royal Government of Thailand. The addition of this Conference Wing enhanced the capacity and efficiency of the Regional Office greatly in serving States and ICAO activities.
A: In working with APAC member States for about 15 years, I was always guided by the conviction that all Member States form the core constituencies of ICAO. Considering the heterogeneous complexity of APAC Region, in terms of vastness, differing levels of growth and vast distances, leading to severe tyranny of distance, keeping all the States engaged and sustaining their confidence and credibility in the ICAO Regional Office, obviously continues to pose major challenges. During my tenure, because of these aforementioned characteristics of the Region, the Regional Office made it a point of following a principle of equitable presence or show of presence in the Region devising appropriate missions and or activities that would be seen by far-flung States as sincere initiatives of the APAC Office. In this regard, the annual Conference of DGs continues to be a very potent and valuable tool for ICAO and States.
Not only keeping the relevance of the ICAO Regional Office but enhancing it amidst the growth of States and their industries is a major challenge. Because APAC States have vast diversity in the range of resources, development, and human capital, ICAO has to exercise extreme caution in not overloading States with frequent technological and compliance changes. Otherwise, some Member States risk being befuddled, and confused, leading to counter-productivity.
Balancing various industry interests at different levels is a continuing task for APAC. The ICAO Regional Office, serving as a valuable and correctly placed conduit between the States and ICAO Montreal on a continuous basis, is a very crucial responsibility in providing real-time information to ICAO HQ. Maintaining this balance without being seen as an impediment to progressive development requires judicious fine-tuning by ICAO as a whole.
The ICAO APAC Team puts itself to the test every day using extreme patience with States and would do well to always remember that the strength of ICAO lies in its knowledge, keeping ahead and exercising its moral strength in terms of neutrality, objectivity, and honesty to better relate with the State administrations. Admittedly, I followed this principle religiously as much as possible.
Additionally, at the APAC level, serious consideration should be given to the establishment of sub-regional offices, in the far-flung regions of APAC. A case in point being, the establishment of a Pacific ICAO functional regional sub-office reporting to the APAC Regional Office to preserve the intent of enhancing the integral efficiency of the APAC Region. ICAO is advised to pre-empt this task before events overtake leaving it behind.
The APAC Region may wish to resist the temptation to replicate forums, platforms, and bodies that duplicate tasks and put a strain on the scarce resources of the States and APAC office. Judicious fine-tuning of the existing mechanisms, which have progressively evolved through a process of evolution molded by wisdom of many States/Administrations and practicalities, should not be lost that easily. The APAC Regional Office should stay at the forefront of this process.
Q: We have just experienced the greatest challenge in aviation. The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis aviation has never seen before. What do you think are the major challenges the aviation industry will face in the next five years?
A: With the global population already hitting nine billion plus, demand for more efficient, orderly, safer and affordable aviation is going to grow. The innate value and romantic appeal for adventure and desire for feeling free from the clutches of the earth are not going to dwindle as already manifested by the recent bold steps in the area of space travel and tourism.
Post-COVID-19 brings many challenges of serious nature and recovery is not going to be quick and easy. Unfortunately, the onset of COVID-19 pandemic, apart from the devastating disruption to international civil aviation, has had a much deeper impact on the institutional aspects of aviation, so meticulously nurtured under the leadership of ICAO. Unilateralism, blockism, groupism and adhocism seem to be on the rise threatening multilateralism, cooperation and collaboration.
Harmonisation of ICAO provision and seamless air travel are still fresh in the memory of travelers, regulators, and industry stakeholders. Achieving a smooth transition from the above seamlessness to the management of severe jolts – technical, legal and institutional brought about by COVID-19 and its pandemic period is going to be a major challenge for ICAO and all other stakeholders.
Simplicity and hospitable warmth, which constituted the pleasure and joy of air travel, was an attribute ICAO with States and all partners had worked so hard to develop over the decades. I hope that this pleasure is not going down in the civil aviation industry as pleasure and excitement that we will be forced to remember as a “Once upon a time happening”.
Q: Finally, some advice to young professionals who are thinking of embarking on an aviation career. How do we attract young professionals to the aviation field?
A: For young professionals who are considering embarking on an aviation career – a simple task for ICAO and States would be to sensitize the academic public more aggressively, take a more pro-media stance. In this regard, the annual conference of APAC Director Generals may wish to take it up as a serious theme to draw out a long-term strategy. ICAO on the other hand may wish to develop a customized and simplified model of UN-ICAO preparation guide to be taken up at school and college levels similar to the Model United Nations preparation guide. (Note: Model United Nations is an academic simulation of the United Nations where students play the role of delegates from different countries and attempt to solve real-world issues with the policies and from perspectives of their assigned country).
My personal message to aspiring professionals is – join civil aviation and see the world and its peoples before it is consumed by “weapon of mass extinction” as the UN Secretary General put it so forthrightly recently.