The Paris Convention of 1910: The path to internationalism


Well before the beginning of the 20th century, aeronautical authorities had begun to meet internationally. In 1880, the Institut de Droit International (Institute of International Law), a private association of eminent jurists from many countries, included aviation on the agenda of its convention held in Oxford, England. The Comité juridique international de l’aviation, established in Paris in 1909, prepared a draft International Code of the Air (“Code de l’air”) through its national committees; the first congress of this new organization was held at Paris in 1911 and two other congresses were convoked previous to the Great War, one at Geneva in 1912 and the other at Frankfurt-am-Main in 1913. Unfortunately, this Code was not completed before World War I; but, this effort was not without its influence on the further development of aviation legislation. 


Called by a decree of the French Government and in connection with the Universal Exhibition in 1889 (from 31 July to 3 August), the first International Congress of Aeronautics met at Paris with delegates from Brazil, France, Great Britain, Mexico, Russia and the United States; it was not however a conference of States since the delegates were not representative of their governments with plenipotentiary power. The delegates agreed to refer questions of complex nature to a Permanent International Aeronautics Commission, which, subsequently, held meetings at Paris (1900), Milan (1906), Nancy (1909) and Turin (1911). Moreover, another attempt of jurists at codification was the International Juridical Congress for the Regulation of Air Locomotion held at Verona in 1910. Internationalism was in the winds.


In fact, military interests in aviation appeared at a very early stage. The First International Peace Conference held at The Hague in 1899 prohibited the discharge of projectiles and explosives from balloons or by other methods of similar nature; this declaration was not renewed, however, at the Second Hague Conference assembled in 1907.


The date of 17 December 1903 marked not only the first flight of the Wright brothers, but also the birth of international civil aviation, as we know it today. Already in the early years of aviation, people with foresight had realized that the advent of the airplane added a new dimension to transport, which could no longer be contained within strictly national confines. Not only was international flight of heavier-than-air vehicles rapidly emerging, but balloons and dirigibles also begun crossing sovereign domestic borders with increasing frequency.


In 1905, France had formed the very first aviation-related federation of any kind: the Fédération aéronautique internationale (FAI) which was established as a non-governmental and non-profit organization to promote aeronautical and astronautical activities worldwide, particularly in the field of air sports, as well as to encourage relate skills, proficiencies and safety measures.


On 25 July 1909, Louis Blériot piloted his monoplane with a 25-horsepower engine (i.e. a Blériot XI) across the English Channel from Calais, France, to Dover, England; no legal steps had been taken to authorize this flight and its landing in a foreign country, and Blériot did not even carry any identification paper.


In 1908, at least ten German balloons were alleged to have crossed the Franco-German border and landed on French soil carrying more than 26 aviators, the majority of those were German officers. Wishing to avoid international confrontation, the French government proposed that an international conference be convened with the purpose of devising regulatory procedures relating to flights into and over foreign territory. As a result, on the invitation of France, the first important conference on an international air law code was convened in Paris in 1910 (named International Air Navigation Conference, Conférence internationale de navigation aérienne, held from 18 May to 29 June at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs). The 1910 Paris International Air Navigation Conference represented the first diplomatic effort to formulate the principles of international law relating to air navigation and was a great historical importance.


Nineteen European States (Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, England, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey) attended this conference; nations from other continents were not invited, given the distances involved, the prospect of their aircraft operating in Europe was considered unrealistic.


Commissions were held on the following four subjects: law of nation; administrative and technical; customs; regulation of the aerial navigation. A number of basic principles governing aviation were laid down through the Projet d’une convention internationale relative à la navigation aérienne. This draft international convention relating to the aerial navigation comprised 7 chapters and 55 articles and three annexes: marks of nationality and registration; characteristics of the aircraft; rules of the air traffic.


The following seven chapters were planned: 1) Nationality of Aircraft and Registration Requirements; 2) Approval and Airworthiness Certificates; 3) authorization for Air Traffic within the Borders and above a National Territory; 4) Regulations on Take-off, Landing and Flight; 5) Customs and Freight; 6) Public Aircraft; 7) Final Provisions,


But, the issue of equal treatment of all civil aircraft, whether national or foreign, within usable airspace was to become the obstacle beyond which the conference was unable to progress. Thus, the cause of failure of the conference was not, as generally supposed, the impossibility of reaching agreement as to the legal status of airspace; the real causes of breakdown were political. Those attending the Conference were divided between the concept of a freedom in the air (paralleling that of the sea) and the concept of a national sovereignty that extended into international air space.


Therefore, this large diplomatic conference finished on an acknowledgement of failure, since no government took action on the ratification of the convention. In 1913, an attempt by an International Committee of Aeronautic Law in Brussels, to resume the work of the Paris conference through the Belgian Government, was a failure.


In 1911, the British Parliament passed the Aerial Navigation Act, giving Britain the power to close British airspace, including parts of the English Channel, to all foreign aircraft. Clearly at that time, Europe was preparing for war and many European countries passed similar legislation. However, one must look beyond this draft convention with some uncompleted articles; in comparing its style and substance with the subsequently successful 1919 Paris Air Navigation Convention, the remarkable similarities in content, substance, and also in the precise wording of the articles and annexes stand out forcefully. Thus, the problems of international aviation were left to bilateral agreement.


During the war, in March 1916, the First Conference of Pan-American Aeronautics, held in Santiago of Chile, recommended to the countries of North and South America that consideration be given to the necessity to unify their aerial legislation, so as to formulate an international air code of laws on aeronautics. Matters to be covered were enumerated.  However, nothing happened before the end of the war and the drafting of the Paris Convention.


World War I interrupted diplomatic negotiations on civil aviation. The tremendous development of military aviation, however, brought about a decisive change in governmental attitudes towards air transport. Great Britain, which had been extremely hostile to an international convention in 1910, created a Civil Aerial Transport Committee in 1917 for the study of post-war civil aviation problems. Similar studies were carried out in France.


In 1917, an Inter-Allied Aviation Committee was established by France, Great-Britain, Italy and the USA in order to coordinate aircraft fabrication, and to standardize aeroplanes, motors and other material; this stressed the necessity of cooperation in post-war international aviation. It was generally agreed that international practice prior to 1919 clearly evidenced recognition of the principle of State sovereignty in the air.


Liberia – 1980 – Maximum Card – Blériot flying over the Channel in July 1909.