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Shefali Juneja, first woman chief of UN’s aviation security body, sees drones, cyberattacks as biggest threats

A 1992-batch IRS officer, Juneja took over as the ICAO’s Aviation Security Committee chief on September 15. In an interview to Moneycontrol, she talks about the challenges facing the aviation sector and ways to make air travel safer

September 18, 2021 / 02:12 PM IST
Shefali Juneja is the first woman to lead ICAO’s Aviation Security Committee.

Shefali Juneja is the first woman to lead ICAO’s Aviation Security Committee.

Shefali Juneja, a 1992-batch Indian Revenue Service officer, is the first woman to head the Aviation Security Committee of the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that is responsible for ensuring standards and regulations for safe, economic and efficient air travel.

Formerly a joint secretary in the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Juneja was nominated to ICAO in 2019, ever since she has been an active part of the organization.

In an interview to Moneycontrol from ICAO’s headquarters in Montreal, Canada, late on September 18, Juneja identified security as the biggest threat with cyberattacks and drones posing a challenge. Edited excerpts:

When do you take over?

We had the first meeting on September 15. The committee is very important as it looks into aviation security, policies as well as what is now very important—cybersecurity. There are a lot of cybersecurity challenges in aviation now. The new milestone that ICAO is trying to achieve is to have a cybersecurity action plan and to have a security strategy with all the 193 countries following it.

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You are taking over at a time when the Taliban, who supported and sheltered al-Qaeda that carried out the 9/11 attacks, are back in power in Afghanistan. How do you plan to tackle this security challenge?

ICAO has to look after international aviation and the challenges to the safety of international civil aviation, especially the newly emerging challenges—drones. Drones have proliferated everywhere but relevant standards for their operations… regulation of drones is still a challenge.

Another challenge is that as we are turning more into a virtual world, there could be new types of attacks through cybersecurity.  Air navigation is completely dependent on satellite communication as well as normal communication through the internet. The Computer Reservation Systems have been at risk of cyberattacks. This is a challenging frontier which the committee will be looking into.

The other important thing is the challenge of the recovery of aviation. Aviation needs to recover and safety could be a major issue when it really bounces back.

Which are the conflict areas identified by ICAO?

ICAO is looking into Annexe 13, which deals with aircraft accidents and incident investigations. It is trying to look into how casualties can be reduced. There is also the Safer Skies initiative to ensure that everybody is on the same page with regard to airlines following due protocols, having the right amount of communication among themselves and with the airport to ensure that the route is safe and secure.

What are your priorities? 

There cannot be individual priorities.  We have a specific division that is looking after aviation security which is constantly working on what is to be done and they have a specialised panel that consists of experts from most member-states who look at the challenges  and try to find out what needs to be done by ICAO at the level of developing standards and recommended practices.

What prompted you to seek election?  

Elections are held once a year. The chairperson is elected from the existing council members. I have been working in ICAO for the past two years and in that period I have already been the chair of a number of small groups. I was made the chair of the small group on gender and we came up with the Gender Declaration.

All this helped me strengthen my position here. When I talk about me I mean India. India really came out as a country which is very committed, knowledgeable, hands-on, it is able to contribute, it is able to lead… They look for people whose country is strong and who are able to showcase the voice of a large number of countries.  India does showcase the voice of a large number of developing countries.

How will your coming to this position help SAARC countries and the developing world? 

Any policy decision that is taken by this committee will need to contemplate on the specific challenges in our area.  One would be to help in scrutinising any policy initiative for meeting these challenges. Also trying to ensure the kind of resource problems that they have.

We really cannot go for a lot of technological changes as there are limited resources available. I would say that the entire landscape is different in (what) happens in the developed world and what happens in the developing world.

Not only resources, there is also a completely different concept of security. Security is a major challenge for our region so I can be a facilitator in initiating policy discussions in ICAO in any policy which is required to be taken up. All discussions in ICAO begin from the committee stage. The committee discusses them and then they go beyond.

Whenever we find ICAO is developing a policy which may not be possible for countries like India and others to adopt immediately or more time is required or a staggered approach is required for them to gradually change over and not be downgraded by audits, it will also get my perspective because we will see to it that we are treated in a manner befitting our resources.
Ashwini Phadnis Senior journalist based in New Delhi
first published: Sep 18, 2021 02:12 pm

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