An interview with ICAO Bureau Director Stephen Creamer

In this series of interviews with ICAO Directors, the Director of the Air Navigation Bureau, Mr. Stephen Creamer, considered the challenges the aviation industry faces as it begins recover from the pandemic and he shared the ways his Bureau is helping to "build back better" .

The Air Navigation Bureau (ANB) in ICAO manages the safety and air navigation capacity and efficiency strategies of ICAO in partnership with aviation stakeholders. This work is carried out within a framework that includes policy and standardization, and safety and infrastructure monitoring, analysis, and implementation.  ANB also leads ICAO efforts related to crises and contingencies.
Stephen P. Creamer, Director, Air Navigation Bureau

Q: “Building back better” is a key theme for almost every recovery strategy for every sector in every region. What does it mean to you personally?

A: Throughout this pandemic, I have been gratified and humbled to witness my staff , and our partners inside and outside the organization, go well ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ to navigate through this time of crisis to ensure in the first instance that the transport of essential goods and critical workers continued, and in the second instance to accelerate the recovery. When we talk about building back better, let’s first acknowledge the importance of the builders, and I think we have seen that the aviation sector is very blessed in this regard.

Building back better presents us with an opportunity to think differently about our business and to reassess our strategies on the best way for ICAO to be able to support our States and the aviation industry in meeting each of their goals. Most particularly it gives us a chance to pivot in place and move forward in a greener direction than we have to date.

The green message is coming through loud and clear, and the transformation we envision gives us the opportunity to become evermore proactive to those needs. I see some opportunities in the current reduced capacity scenario that may allow us to fully retire some aging aircraft and systems that were necessary to meet demand pre-pandemic and replace them post-pandemic with more efficient and environmentally friendly aircraft and systems.

This hiatus may even present the opportunity for many developing States to leap-frog the legacy CNS infrastructure and forge ahead with the operational improvements offered by the Block Upgrades in the GANP.

Q: How do you see the Air Navigation Bureau’s work contributing to building back better?

A: In the first instance, as we supported the needs of our States and the industry during this pandemic, many lessons for pandemic planning in the future have been and are being learned, and these will be built into our standards and crisis management plans.

Now as we enter the recovery phase, the Air Navigation Bureau has an opportunity to focus on its transformation activities. We have an obligation to ensure the return to capacity is done without compromising our current global safety standards.  Building back better, in this case, means access to more modern solutions to the capacity demands as the passengers and freight return to their pre-pandemic levels.

Safety in aviation has always meant preventing the loss of life. Continuing with this first priority means addressing the vital threats presented by climate change. ICAO must help States meet their responsibilities in this endeavor, and guide States and industry toward strategies and solutions that will meet the future demands and expectations of environmentally sustainable operations. Many of the solutions are already at our fingertips, such as the optimization of airspace use. Now is the time to make that pivot.

Pre-pandemic, we were on the cusp of a different but complementary kind of pivot, with the digital world taking a monumental role in the aviation business, including ‘safety of life’ services.  Here, building back better will mean a very active approach to the cyber-resilience that this requires to remain safe and to include security performance parameters into our systems design and performance.  The International Aviation Trust Framework is a good example of this

It is important to note that in addition to our COVID-19 specific support to States, ICAO’s regular activities continued. I would like to highlight the continuation of our critical Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USOAP), the results of which provide critical guidance to States towards the enhancement of their oversight capacities and compliance with related ICAO materials. The programme in fact continued to be enhanced, through the implementation of a majority of recommendations from an appointed Group of Experts, and as air connectivity is progressively re-established, the outcomes of this programme will be particularly critical to the safety of the restart.

More generally speaking, it is important to understand that ANB is the custodian of 16 of the 19 Annexes to the Chicago Convention. Making sure that we are keeping this normative framework relevant and constructive, through an agile, data-driven, and people-oriented approach, is the best way we can contribute to building back better.

Q: Among these activities, which are particularly key priorities for you?

A: The streamlining of the standard-setting processes paired with the optimization of a data-informed risk-based approach to regional cooperation will support and accelerate the recovery and further development of aviation.

Achieving this means developing future partnerships with the industry.  It is very clear to me that many of the great aviation minds of today are working both in our current aerospace system and in the innovative new fields of space, UAS, and Urban Air Mobility. We would be doing a disservice to our members not to harness that expertise so that ICAO can provide sound standards for all. Building back better, I believe, will also demand some introspection. We need to ensure the organizational framework will allow all stakeholders direct access and resource allocation for specific programs, within the existing standard-making process, in order to ensure the capability of ICAO to deliver targeted solutions.

Finally, I would like to highlight cyber-threats as an area that we need to pay special attention to.  Here, I am not just talking about intentional unlawful interference, but rather all of the potential unintended consequences of moving aviation into a digital environment. The Air Navigation Bureau is primarily focused on enhancing aviation safety and encouraging the efficiency and capacity of the global civil aviation network. Why are these important to States’ economic and social recovery from the effects of the pandemic?

Supporting aviation growth will generate added value to the entire sustainable development of States and Regions. For example, research has shown that a 10% increase in a State’s effective implementation (EI) of safety-related standards can increase its GDP by 1.18%. And a more efficient network, coupled with the appropriate capacity, can increase even further the added value of aviation, especially for the States heavily dependent on aviation. As we move out of the pandemic, many States will be in some financial difficulty and will be looking to return their GDP results to pre-pandemic levels.  Aviation can help.

We see also a direct link between the availability of air services and the perception of a ‘return to normalcy’ for many people. Pandemic-induced border closures have caused reduced aviation capacity, and its return might be equally signifying that those hurdles have been overcome and we can all get on with life again. On this point, I would be remiss if I did not mention the tremendous emotional difficulties that many families and communities have endured as a direct result of the loss of international air services.

Q: These two strategic objectives contribute to global sustainable development, as does ICAO’s work in environmental protection, economic policy, and aviation security. ICAO’s strategic objectives are in fact reciprocating and interlinked. How is the bureau supporting ICAO’s work in these other areas?

A: This is a very good point.  Indeed, there are very few initiatives within our Bureau that do not have an impact on work within the other strategic objectives of ICAO.  Of course, some of these are much larger than others and in fact, range from small consequential ramifications to needing joint working groups to resolve issues.

ANB is ensuring a collaborative effort in supporting ICAO’s work in aviation security.  As an example, the Oversight Support Unit in Monitoring and Oversight, which oversees the USOAP, is also supporting the activities of the USAP through the development and maintenance of the USAP’s platform on the USOAP CMA online framework.  This integrated activity involving a single digital platform for comparable programmes in two different bureaus speaks to our contributions to aviation security.

I might particularly note the work on the International Trust Framework and its absolute reliance on our ATB colleagues to provide the security performance requirements for our system build specifications.  In the same way that safety sets the performance standards that our air Navigation systems must meet in order to improve either the capacity or the efficiency of the system, so the cyber-security standards need to set the benchmark for our digital CNS systems.  Further, we will be needing the technical co-operation acumen of TCB, the legal scrutiny and advice from LEB, and the business acumen of RPM from ADB to bring this programme to fruition.

I also mentioned the green pivot of ANB moving forward.  ATB has tremendous experience in this field of course and we see them becoming our primary advisor on the environmental standards we should be designing into our future systems.  I see this as a very challenging but nevertheless very exciting next chapter in our evolution in ANB. Producing new technical standards or updating the existing ones have already helped the aviation industry to evolve into more environmental friendly aircraft and engines and this trend will need to accelerate and expand further into the airport and air traffic management operational systems and procedures. Each of these changes has a direct impact on the business models and mechanisms that will need to be integrated into the management of risk for all of ICAO’s strategic objectives.

Q: Technical cooperation and regional outreach are key to the realization of ICAO’s objectives. In these areas, what would you like to achieve in 2021?

A: ANB would like to continue developing tools in support of States’ participation in ICAO activities.  In working with TCB, we have developed and deployed, or are planning to deploy, iPacks to provide States with the necessary information, training, and subject matter expertise to support their civil aviation recovery efforts.  Currently, six iPacks are available with five iPacks coming soon.

I see ANB returning more to its traditional roots of standards development but coupled with an internal transition of staff to TCB to develop the roll-out and implementation plans for those standards.  I am envisaging a free flow of personnel between the departments of our Bureaux as we progress the life cycle of new standards.

While this is critical for safety standards, which are for the most part mandatory, it has far more meaning when applied to the voluntary standards for air navigation capacity and efficiency, in which the business case for adoption becomes the central pillar for implementation.  We see this partnership realizing giant strides in global interoperability and the ability of our industry, to move to a more environmentally friendly model than we have today.

Q: The UN system has provided a comprehensive and integrated response to the pandemic. What can you tell us about the Air Navigation Bureau’s upcoming priorities in this context?

A: ANB has been part of that integrated response and we are very proud of the way many of our teams have stepped up to the challenges to help develop the global solutions.  Our medical section, through Dr Ansa Jordaan, has been a linchpin for the response to the pandemic itself. The benefits of the CAPSCA program to the broader UN, as a public health initiative, were realized from a very early time.  We will also have a lot of lessons learned out of this that we need to incorporate into our future pandemic planning. Enhancing the governance framework of CAPSCA and the safety management approach to deal with pandemics, and formalizing the management of alleviations from standards in case of big disruptions, is envisioned.

ANB has also been refocused toward supporting the States’ and industry’s needs as identified by the CART, through the development of both temporary alleviations from some requirements and the design of iPacks to ensure the maintenance of safety standards as this pandemic progressed.

As the system builds back, we will once again have a number of significant safety areas to monitor, such as the return to service of airframes, the competence of aviation professionals as they return to work, along with the oversight capability of the regulatory authorities as traffic increases once again in their jurisdiction. Our USOAP CMA will continue to enhance the measures it instituted to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. New methodologies were implemented to support an increase in off-site activities using different technologies to enable virtual activities for certain States. These activities have been instrumental in managing our continuous monitoring efforts of States’ oversight of aviation safety activities. There is no reason we can not continue to utilize these measures as part of the overall USOAP CMA.

Q: When air traffic levels have returned to the pre-pandemic levels, what do you hope to be able to say to yourself with hindsight?

A: ANB, and all of ICAO, will have served as the global aviation community to recover fully, while meeting ambitious performance requirements across all of ICAO’s strategic directives, and safely introducing exciting new flight possibilities in UAS, UAM, commercial space and other services.  We will have delivered the knowledge and expertise to the developing world to be able to join in this revolution, and sometimes even lead it.  We will have helped lead new regulatory and policy initiatives that kept the cost of compliance in line with risks.  And, ICAO will be known for setting and delivering high performance and ethical standards that: 1) reinforce the public’s confidence in aviation safety and environmental performance; and 2) set ICAO as a leading employer in the aviation industry and the UN, attracting best-in-class talent to our mission.