An interview with ICAO Bureau Director Mohamed Khalifa Rahma


In a recent conversation with the Director of ICAO’s Air Transport Bureau, Mr. Mohammed Khalifa Rahma, shared his vision for air transport and how the activities in this Bureau help to support this vision.  

ICAO’s Air Transport Bureau (ATB) supports the implementation of the Strategic Objectives of ICAO, and in particular, security and facilitation, the economic development of air transport, and environmental protection. The Bureau is accordingly responsible for supporting the ICAO Council in developing, updating, and promoting the implementation of Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) in Annexes 9 ‑ Facilitation, 16—Environmental Protection and 17—Security to the Chicago Convention. 

In further support to States, ATB also produces air transport policies and guidance, such as air transport regulation, the economics of airports and air navigation services, aviation infrastructure funding, and the specifications for machine-readable travel documents. The Bureau develops environment-related policies and measures and assists States in preparing and implementing action plans for CO2 emissions reduction activities and implementing the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). 

In addition, the Bureau manages ICAO’s Universal Security Audit Programme (USAP), coordinates the provision of assistance to States in rectifying deficiencies identified by the USAP and promotes the implementation of the Global Aviation Security Plan (GASeP) and the ICAO Traveller Identification Programme (ICAO TRIP) Strategy by all stakeholders. 

Mr. Mohamed Khalifa Rahma, Director of ICAO’s Air Transport Bureau.

 Q: I’d like to begin by asking you, among all the Bureau’s activities, which are particularly key priorities for the air transport sector as a whole at this time?

A: Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the key priority has been providing the necessary support to member States in the restart, recovery, and long-term resilience of the civil aviation sector. In the global effort to contain the spread of the pandemic, governments have imposed stringent travel restrictions, closed borders, and severely limited the movement of people. These decisions and the global economic downturn have had a significant impact on the viability of the civil aviation industry worldwide.

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, ICAO has called upon States and the civil aviation industry to observe relevant global aviation standards and the International Health Regulations while providing support, guidance, and advice of desirable measures to be applied in response to critical raising issues. While recognizing the urgency of the situation and the need to deliver an expedited and timely result, the Secretariat COVID-19 Emergency Programme Group (SCEPG) has been formed with a crucial role of coordinating the Secretariats’ COVID-19-related activities across all ICAO Bureaus and Regional Offices. 

In April 2020, the Council established the COVID-19 Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART) to identify and recommend strategic priorities and policies for States and industry operators. This task force, composed of representatives from States, international, regional and industry organizations, was tasked to identify and recommend strategic priorities and policies to support States and industry around three pillars: coping with the challenges in the immediate term; facilitating the restart of aviation operations in a sustainable, safe and orderly manner as soon as practicable; and building a more resilient aviation system in the longer term. All ICAO Bureaus have provided support for the CART activities.

The negative effects of the pandemic on the aviation industry result mainly from the closure of borders. Therefore, the industry’s recovery requires a significant focus on facilitation activities and measures, which became a key priority in enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of the global response to challenges arising because of the pandemic. The assurance of coordination amongst relevant state agencies and industry stakeholders and the harmonization of air transport facilitation activities amongst States aim for ensuring efficient and effective border processes and solutions.

For example, we have sought to harmonize the essential tools for reporting health data—the passenger locator and health declaration forms. More recently, we have sought to harmonize the content of COVID test reports used for travel while also seeking global interoperability of digital solutions for providing health data, including proofs of negative COVID-19 tests. Considering the direct and indirect economic benefits of air transport to their national economies, States need to consider the most appropriate means for supporting stakeholders across the civil aviation sector. Such extraordinary emergency measures could range from regulatory relief, operational flexibility, grants of extra-bilateral air service rights or traffic rights to an economic stimulus or direct financial assistance.

ICAO has published the Guidance on Economic and Financial Measures. This guide summarizes a range of possible measures that States and aviation companies can explore to cope with the economic fallout of the pandemic. It also aims to ease the imminent liquidity and financial strain on the industry and strengthen its resilience to future crises. An essential pillar of the sector’s recovery will also build its resilience. This will require States, industries, and stakeholders to have reliable information and tools to monitor and assess the growing impact of COVID-19 and leverage key indicators to make informed, data-driven decisions. The ICAO Air Traffic Dashboards monitor four aspects of the effects of COVID-19 on civil aviation, including the operational, economic and aircraft utilization impacts.

In addition, efficient and effective emergency response planning and coordination will be an essential component of a state’s strategy for recovering the air transport sector and addressing future challenges brought on by global-scale disruptions to the aviation system. While the recovery of air transport is our highest priority, we aim to achieve a sustainable future. We are working to ensure that we build back better. In parallel, we are working on measures to address the environmental impact of aviation, mainly on climate change, so that as we rebuild it with a decarbonized future in mind.

Q: Building back better is a key principle for the aviation sector’s recovery, broadly speaking. What activities and initiatives is the Bureau undertaking to help enable this?

A: Building back better applies to all activities of the Air Transport Bureau, including aviation security, air transport facilitation and economic development, and aviation environmental protection. With all the attention on pandemic response, it is still important not to lose sight of our responsibility to help safeguard international civil aviation against acts of unlawful interference. The ongoing work of the Universal Security Audit Programme and the assistance and training programme is essential, and the Bureau is ready to resume the entire audit and help functions once conditions permit. The Bureau is monitoring technological innovations that can already contribute towards greater efficiency in aviation security during COVID-19.

For example, laser-based technology can help manage adequate physical distancing at queues and security checkpoints. Modern screening equipment, such as explosive detection systems for cabin baggage, allows for faster screening processes with lower false alarms and increased detection capability. Also, biometric systems are an effective tool for access control, allowing for contactless identity checks. Innovative solutions are a key theme in the upcoming annual Aviation Security Symposium 2021, where participants can discuss “business not as usual” and aviation security post-COVID-19.

The pandemic has shown that resiliency to the crisis requires the flexibility and adaptability of cross-sectorial collaboration to address challenges. Unfortunately, the cross-domain cooperation needed to ensure continued aviation operations safely and efficiently during the pandemic—particularly collaboration between aviation and health authorities—was not always apparent. ICAO standards on facilitation place an obligation on States to, among other things, establish National Facilitation Committees to facilitate this collaboration and ensure that such committees can play an increased role as future challenges arise. A new implementation package (iPACK) and an Annex 9 – Facilitation course have been launched to enhance State capabilities to implement the provisions of Annex 9—Facilitation.One significant positive aspect of this pandemic is the opportunity for the civil aviation sector to improve its environmental performance as it recovers and grows. We are currently working on the feasibility of a long-term global aspirational goal for international aviation (LTAG) through detailed studies assessing the attainability and impacts of any CO2 emissions reduction goals proposed. It also includes the impact on growth and costs. 

For the long term, aviation in-sector emission reductions are key, and the Bureau is monitoring and promoting technological, operational and other innovations that can contribute to this end. This also includes additional sources of energy, such as batteries and hydrogen. The aim is to identify sector scenarios and evaluate the timing, readiness, attainability and emission reductions of such scenarios. Despite the COVID10 pandemic, we provide full support to States for timely implementation of CORSIA through the ICAO Assistance, Capacity-building and Training for CORSIA (ACT-CORSIA) programme. We are happy to see the increasing number of states that have recently decided to join CORSIA, reaching over 100 CORSIA volunteer States voluntarily.

Q: ICAO’s work directly supports the achievement of 15 of the 17 sustainable development goals set forth in the UN’s Agenda 2030. Could you please tell us which ones ATB is especially encouraging, and how? 

A: ATB contributes to all 15 sustainable development goals, and in particular goals 8, 9 and 13.

Q: SDG 8 is a call to “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” How are you doing that?

A: Aviation plays a critical role in sustainable development. The extent of the crisis faced by civil aviation has consequences that go far beyond the industry itself. A post-COVID-19 recovery will be possible only through aviation’s rapid worldwide network and connectivity, including the full resumption of travel and trade and the return to economic growth.

To realize these ambitious goals, all actors should work together to safeguard against downside risks, strengthen necessary confidence to resume operations, and support sustainable economic growth, creating jobs and boosting economic activity worldwide. ATB contributes to this effort by leading the development of policies, standards and guidance material covering air transport regulation, security and facilitation and environmental protection, which are necessary to the sustainable growth of civil aviation and help harmonize and streamline the regulatory framework worldwide. 

Q: Then we have the appeal to “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation,” which is SDG 9. What does this look like from ATB’s perspective?

A: Airports and air navigation services are a critical component of any basic infrastructure in any state. They are vital in linking cities, regions, States and regions. Besides the standards and recommended practices (SARPs) developed by ANB to ensure the safety and efficiency of operations, ATB is leading the work on the development of SARPs covering security and facilitation at airports. It also helps with policies and guidance material relating to user charges and environmental aspects of airports and air navigation services.

Building airports and air navigation services require substantial funding, and financing and operating them involves considerable resources. ATB provides practical guidance and tools to assist States in analyzing to support the funding of civil aviation infrastructure.

Through the work of ATB, ICAO is also the custodian agency of global indicators 9.1.2 “Passenger and Freight Volumes, by Mode of Transport” within the 2030 Agenda framework. In this capacity, ATB provides data and analysis to the annual Sustainable Development Goals Report, the indicator documentation and the online UN platform for monitoring the progress towards the SDGs. This assists the ICAO Member States’ monitor and benchmark air transport infrastructure and facilitates financing and investments. These actions drive the sustainable growth of air transport and benefit multimodal transport connectivity.

Q: SDG 13 is perhaps one of the best-known ones, as it calls on stakeholders to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Of course, environmental sustainability is a strategic objective for ICAO, and your Bureau is leading our work in this field.  

A: ICAO takes climate change seriously and has been limiting or reducing greenhouse gas emissions from international civil aviation for the last two decades. In 2010, the 37th Assembly adopted two global aspirational goals for the international aviation sector of 2% annual fuel efficiency improvement through 2050 and carbon-neutral growth from 2020 onwards. For the last 10 years, ICAO has encouraged and assisted member States in developing their action plans to reduce aviation CO2 emissions.

To date, 121 States that represent around 98% of global aviation traffic have prepared and submitted their action plans to ICAO, incorporating the best-suited aviation CO2 reduction measures, as the contribution of individual States to the achievement of ICAO aspirational goals. In 2016, the Assembly adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), the first global market-based measure for any sector.

It represented a cooperative global approach away from a “patchwork” of duplicative national or regional standards. More recently, ICAO has been exploring the feasibility of a long-term aspirational goal to reduce CO2 emissions from international aviation. The next ICAO Assembly will consider the results of the work in 2022. While the UNFCCC Paris Agreement does not cover emissions from international aviation, ICAO and its Member States continue to take the lead in addressing all matters related to international aviation and climate change. ATB has been ICAO’s arm in this effort.

Q: Environmental protection and economic development can and must be symbiotic and reciprocating. Could you outline how ICAO is encouraging the emergence of this dynamic throughout the global aviation sector? 

A: Economic development and environmental protection are two pillars of sustainable development in any sector. Aviation is a significant contributor to global economic prosperity. By providing the only rapid worldwide transportation network, aviation is essential for global business, generates economic growth, creates jobs, and facilitates international trade and tourism.

In 2019, airlines worldwide carried 4.5 billion passengers, with revenue passenger kilometres totalling 8.7 trillion. Nearly 60 million tonnes of cargo were transported by air in 2019, reaching 225 billion freight tonne-kilometres. Over 100,000 flights transported 12 million passengers and around USD 18 billion worth of goods every day. Throughout the pandemic, air transport continued to ensure critical supply chains operating globally.

The economic and social benefits of aviation are clear, and its growth is essential for all States. Aviation is an efficient means of long-distance intercity, interregional, and international transport, operating in many places more efficiently than alternatives. Aviation needs to grow economically viable and sustainable to keep the benefits of a growing air transport sector. The sector recognizes that this growth affects the environment, whether through aircraft noise or engine emissions.

For the past 50 years, ICAO has been working on limiting and reducing this impact of aviation on the environment, developing policies, standards and guidance material, and assisting member States in their implementation for environmental sustainability of aviation. The industry must balance the advantages of growth in air travel with the responsibility to pursue ecological action. This responsibility is something that the global aviation sector takes seriously. 

Q: In what ways has the pandemic affected ICAO’s activities in the area of Aviation Security and Facilitation?

A: Over the past decade, ICAO Member States have made considerable strides in establishing sustainable and effective security and oversight systems. ICAO’s security audit and assistance programmes have played an essential role in this success. While the pandemic has prevented ICAO security auditors from going on-site, a series of document-based audits have been conducted to help States maintain and improve their aviation security oversight systems. On-site assistance and training activities have been halted by the pandemic travel restrictions.

They have been replaced temporarily by online/virtual tailored activities to support the Member States. Meanwhile, ICAO continues to produce and disseminate best practice guidance to ensure measures applied at airports protect the health and safety of airport staff, crew, and passengers to reduce the spreading of COVID-19 among people and across borders. The role played by aviation security is fundamental in establishing that new normal. ICAO’s facilitation activities have always required significant investment in innovation and intelligent deployments of technologies. Our facilitation programme has driven the rollout of automated border controls and Standards and Recommended Practices on passenger data exchange systems that simultaneously enhanced border security and facilitation.

They have increased developments towards seamless air travel. The pandemic acts as an accelerant to this work, requiring prioritization and allocation of resources. The demand for contactless processes and technologies to improve passenger facilitation has grown. This work will need additional deployment capabilities for traveller identification and travel document authentication, effective data sharing and process control, and new and revised SARPs.

We see the likelihood that more health-related data will be required to ensure that travel is secure and safe from a health perspective. The future will probably involve passengers providing some health-related data during their travels and before the trip, the privacy-aware sharing of this data with those who might need it and the provision of increased health-related checks and interventions within the travel continuum. ICAO has already instigated the planning necessary to ensure that States, the industry, and other stakeholders are as prepared as workable to deal with this future normal in air travel. A dedicated task force was established and has completed its recommendations to update ICAO’s health-related standards and recommended practices in facilitation to better protect the health of the travelling public and aviation personnel for future public health emergencies of international concern.  

Q: In addition to the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, 2021 is the Year of Security Culture. Perhaps you could give us some background on what ATB foresees due to this year’s focus on aviation security?

A: 2021 is indeed an essential year for aviation security. The overarching goal of the Year of Security Culture is to raise security awareness and to promote a positive security culture in aviation. Everyone should be engaged, from industry leaders to frontline workers and taxi drivers to those working in airport retail outlets. Security is everyone’s responsibility. By the end of the year, the hope is that our entire sector and the global community will think and act in a more security-conscious manner.  

Highlighting the tragic events of 9/11 will help us raise aviation security awareness and remind the global aviation community that the threat that civil aviation is facing has not diminished. Instead, it has developed, and adversaries continuously seek to exploit gaps and vulnerabilities in our aviation systems to conduct an attack. Security is necessary to protect passengers and goods, as an attack on civil aviation would cause significant disruptions, economic consequences, and a loss of confidence in the aviation system. Security must be a priority in airport and airline business planning where adequate security can be seen as an asset, rather than just an obligation and burdensome expense. With the ongoing pandemic, the security culture in aviation has come under more pressure to remain robust. A weak security culture creates more significant vulnerabilities in terms of staff not being motivated to the same level (financial worries, job security) or their security awareness being diminished because of a lack of training or lack of recent work experience for those furloughed.

Therefore, security culture initiatives are a top priority for ICAO. As part of the Global Aviation Security Plan, we will promote a solid and effective security culture in aviation during the 2021 Year of Security Culture and beyond. For more information, I encourage you to visit the ICAO Security Culture website.

Q: All three of ATB’s strategic objectives are tightly linked to UN-wide priorities and programmes. What are you hoping ICAO can achieve within the next few years through a partnership with the rest of the UN system?

A: Since its inception, ATB has been working with many UN entities and organizations, including the United Nations Security Council and its Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), the Economic and Social Council, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the Universal Postal Union (UPU), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), and the World Customs Organization (WCO). In addition, ATB cooperates with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC).

Cooperation, particularly across the UN system, has proven to be an essential component of our endeavours to address the challenges brought on by the current crisis. The success of aviation’s recovery today and preparedness for tomorrow can only result from collective efforts. 

We have seen the creation and strengthening of many meaningful partnerships recently and throughout this crisis. For instance, ICAO signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) to build Member State capacity to prevent, detect, and investigate terrorist offenses and other serious crimes. This new agreement is critical to ICAO’s collaboration under the UNOCT led Countering Terrorist Travel Programme. ICAO has drawn attention to challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has posed to air transport, tourism and trade, and its impacts on countries’ efforts to counter-terrorism and organized crime during the UN’s principal of the Global Counterterrorism Coordination Compact Entities.

During the pandemic, ICAO intensified its cooperation with the UN and other key stakeholders to ensure optimal awareness by all parties on requirements and expectations in air transport operations. ICAO has been working closely with the UN System entities through the coordination of the United Nations Operations and Crisis Centre (UNOCC), but also directly with the WHO, the UNWTO, the IMO, ILO, the World Food Programme (WFP) and other intergovernmental and industry organizations, at both executive and technical levels. ICAO has issued several joint statements with the WHO, UNWTO, IMO, ILO, UPU, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR), UNCTAD, UNECE, UNECLAC, UNESCAP and UNESCWA, and more.

ICAO has also contributed to the UN Committee for the Coordination of Statistical Activities (CCSA) report on “How COVID-19 is changing the world: a statistical perspective,” which provides a snapshot of some of the latest information available on how COVID-19 is affecting different aspects of public and private life, from economic and environmental fluctuations to changes that affect individuals in terms of income, education, employment and violence and changes affecting public services such as civil aviation and postal services. We look forward to strengthening this partnership during the post-pandemic period.

ICAO’s cooperation with other UN bodies is also crucial in environmental protection, including the outreach on ICAO’s achievements in addressing international aviation emissions to the UNFCCC and other climate-related fora. Close interaction with scientific and energy-related organizations, such as Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), International Energy Agency (IEA) and International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), is increasingly important in terms of ICAO’s work on a long-term aspirational goal for international aviation. Within the UN Environment Management Group (EMG), ICAO Carbon Emissions Calculator continues to be the universal tool used to calculate air-travel-related CO2 emissions in each UN system organization as part of the UN Climate Neutral Initiative.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic also caused significant disruptions in air cargo. As challenging as it would have been in pre-pandemic times, these constraints happened when global societies were becoming more urgently reliant on the emergency aid and essential supplies that only aviation could get to them most times. ICAO has worked with UN organizations and other stakeholders to ensure timely and efficient resumption of cargo flights. Also, to make air cargo and the broader supply chain safer for personnel and customers, less burdened by redundancies and border delays, and more secure by improving risk-based screening and information sharing.

Q: ICAO’s scenarios reveal a wide variety of timelines to recover international civil aviation. What do you hope the network looks like when connectivity is finally fully restored?

A: While there are some positive signs, the near-term outlook is for prolonged depressed demand, and the impact of the pandemic on air travel will still be deeply felt in 2021. Improvements in the global picture will be subject to the effectiveness of pandemic management and vaccine rollout.

Since the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, the ICAO economic development team has been monitoring and assessing the economic impact of the pandemic on civil aviation. It has been updating the analysis weekly and is available here. ICAO’s near-term projections in July indicate that for 2021 as a whole, capacity offered globally in terms of seats would decline 44 to 47% from the 2019 levels, and the number of passengers would be 1.9 to 2.1 billion less. The projected decline in traffic is estimated to translate into a potential loss between USD 288 and 314 billion compared to 2019 levels in gross airline passenger operating revenues. Airports and ANSPs are also expected to lose around USD 90 billion and USD 10 billion in revenues in 2021.

Looking at the longer term, ICAO has developed the post-COVID-19 long-term traffic forecasts scenarios, which the Third Meeting approved the Aviation Data Analysis Panel in June 2021. According to the mid scenario, domestic traffic is expected to return to 2019 levels in 2022, while international traffic will recover in 2023. Supported by the continued demand for goods and supplies and the growing e-commerce trend, cargo traffic will recover more swiftly. The forecast scenarios are available here

Full recovery will take some time. There will be a permanent downward shift of traffic in both mid and low scenarios because of the substitution of online technologies for business and changes in household vacation/travel patterns. The continued focus will be on reducing the sector’s environmental footprint through the market-based measure—CORSIA and through new technology and energy sources to facilitate a green recovery and growth with a clear long-term ICAO aim.