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ICAO vs IATA - Who they are and what do they do?

By Rob Russell

The often-asked question is what is the difference between ICAO and IATA and where do they fit into civil aviation?

ICAO – International Civil Aviation Oroganisation

The International Civil Aviation Organisation is a specialized agency of the United Nations that coordinates the principles and techniques of international air navigation and fosters the planning and development of international air transport to ensure standardisation and safety throughout member countries.

The forerunner to ICAO was the International Commission for Air Navigation (ICAN). It held its first convention in 1903 in Berlin, Germany, but no agreements were reached among the original eight countries that attended. At the second convention in 1906, also held in Berlin, twenty-seven countries attended. A third convention was held in London in 1912. Progress was made towards reaching a consensus on various standards and agreements.

Mr E. Warner

Fifty-two countries subsequently met and signed the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, also known as the Chicago Convention, in Chicago, Illinois, on 7 December 1944. Under its terms, a Provisional International Civil Aviation Organization was to be established, to be replaced in turn by a permanent organization when twenty-six countries ratified the convention. Accordingly, PICAO began operating on 6 June 1945, replacing ICAN. After the formal ratification of the Chicago Convention, PICAO was disestablished on 4 April 1947 and replaced by ICAO under the leadership of the first President of the council, Mr E. Warner.

ICAO headquarters are located in the Quartier International of Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Being a sub-division of the United Nations, ICAO is responsible for setting standards and recommended practices throughout the world. ICAO is managed by a Council, which is elected every three years and serves for a period of three years. The last election was in 2022 when Salvatore Sciacchitano was re-elected as president.

How do they perform their role? This is done in the form of Standards and Recommended practices.

Standards And Recommended Practices (SARPs) are technical specifications adopted by the Council of ICAO in accordance with Article 37 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation in order to achieve "the highest practicable degree of uniformity in regulations, standards, procedures and organization in relation to aircraft, personnel, airways and auxiliary services in all matters in which such uniformity will facilitate and improve air navigation".

What is the difference between a standard and a recommended practice?

A standard is "any specification for physical characteristics, configuration, material, performance, personnel or procedure, the uniform application of which is recognized as necessary for the safety or regularity of international air navigation and to which Contracting States will conform in accordance with the Convention". A standard is effectively mandatory, to ensure compliance throughout the world’s airspaces.

A recommended practice is  "any specification for physical characteristics, configuration, material, performance, personnel or procedure, the uniform application of which is recognized as desirable in the interest of safety, regularity or efficiency of international air navigation and to which Contracting States will endeavour to conform in accordance with the Convention". A recommended practice is desirable to ensure standardisation within the world’s airspaces.

ICAO publishes its standards in the form of Annexes. There are at present 19 Annexes. Countries, that are signatories to the Chicago Convention, are required to ensure that their legislation is in compliance with these Annexes. Should a country not be able to comply, a difference is listed with ICAO. These differences are published within the various Annexes and also listed in the relevant County’s AIP – Aeronautical Information Publication.

Each signatory of the convention is required to have one of these Publications. They are published by the individual country’s Civil Aviation Authority and are laid out in a format as described in Annex 15 – the Aeronautical Information Services Manual

Recommended practices are published in the form of Documents. As with Standards, any country that lists a non-compliance from a Recommended practice, will inform ICAO and the difference will be listed within the various Documents

IATA – International Air Transport Association

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is essentially a trade association of the world's airlines founded in 1945. It has no legislative powers within any country. IATA was formed in April 1945 in Havana, Cuba. It is the successor to the International Air Traffic Association, which was formed in 1919 in The Hague, Netherlands.

At its founding, IATA consisted of 57 airlines from 31 countries. Much of IATA's early work was technical and IATA provided input to the newly created International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which was reflected in the annexes of the Chicago Convention, the international treaty that still governs international air transport. It is also headquartered in Montreal

In the late 1940s, IATA started holding conferences to fix prices for international air travel. IATA secretary J.G Gazdik stated that the organization aimed to fix prices at reasonable levels, with due regard being paid to the cost of operations, in order to ensure reasonable profits for airlines. IATA effectively operated as a cartel, charged by the governments with setting a constrained fare structure. (In many countries, modern commercial law would outlaw such practices nowadays)

With the demise of many of those losses making Government owned airlines, the role of IATA has also changed and the organisation has been forced to adapt to present times, by providing services to airlines and ancillary services around airlines, ie ground handlers and also to the travel industry at large.

It is now focused on five main areas:

  1. Safety. IATA states that safety is its number one priority. The main instrument for safety is the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA). IOSA has also been mandated at the state level by several countries. Member airlines are subject to regular and periodic audits, to ensure compliance to various standards. This ensures all member airlines operate to the same standards and airlines that are found to be non-compliant can have their membership suspended.

  2. Simplifying the business. This initiative, launched in 2004, has introduced a number of crucial concepts to passenger travel, including the electronic ticket and the bar-coded boarding pass. Many other innovations are being established as part of the Fast Travel initiative, including a range of self-service baggage options, as well as making boarding passes available on mobile devices, reducing the dependence on paper forms and increasing the efficiency of services available.

  3. Protecting the environment. The focus here is on providing services that are environmentally friendly. A good example of this was at the 2013 IATA annual general meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, members overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution on "Implementation of the Aviation Carbon-Neutral Growth (CNG2020) Strategy

  4. Services. IATA provides training to airlines, ground handlers and travel agencies on various aspects of airline operations and services available.

  5. Publications. IATA publishes various books and documents on various standards and services available. For example the Handling of Dangerous goods. These are available to members, as well as non-members, as IATA attempt to expand their influence on civil aviation.

IATA is funded by membership fees, primarily from the member airlines, as well as from income generated by the sale of their publications and training programmes. Membership of IATA is voluntary and many airlines prefer to operate outside of IATA, often operating to higher standards and delivering more services than the minimum required by IATA.



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