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Safety Management Systems (SMS) in Aviation

by Tori Williams 1. June 2018 21:37
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There is nothing more important in the aviation industry than safety. Every law, rule, or procedure has its roots in the general objective of increasing safety. Due to the fact that it is always being improved upon and innovated within, the United States’ national airspace system is one of the safest in the world. Today I would like to take a look at one of the newest pieces of regulation regarding safety in aviation, Safety Management Systems (SMS).

Historically, the process for improving safety was purely reactionary. Authorities would wait for an accident, investigate the accident to identify the cause, and then make changes to avoid the same accident in the future. This is ineffective, as it can solve one or two problems at a time but not address the less obvious contributing factors to the accident. Of course, accidents will continue to be investigated and learned from, but there is a new system that takes a more preventative approach.

Safety Management Systems (SMS) is a core concept in the aviation industry and recognized by both FAA and ICAO. This structured and business-like approach to managing and improving safety in all facets of the aviation industry has been explained by the FAA in a series of Advisory Circulars.

Is a SMS mandatory for all aviation operations? Not quite. For example, SMS for all part 139 certificated airports was proposed in the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in October 2010, however, in 2016 the FAA issued a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SNPRM) which reduced the number of airports that needed an SMS to 265 airports that are certified under Part 139; airports that must have an SMS program include the following:

- classified as a small, medium, or large hub airport in the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems;

- identified by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection as a port of entry, designated international airport, landing rights airport, or user fee airport; or

- identified as having more than 100,000 total annual operations.

This requirement maximizes safety benefits in the least burdensome manner and is consistent with international standards. Airports that are not required to have an SMS may still use FAA resources and implement selected practices to ensure safety at their airport. A full SMS plan may take months to create, and in some cases require assistance from an outside consulting firm.

The Four Components of SMS

Safety Management Systems has been divided into four distinct components; Safety Policy, Safety Risk Management, Safety Assurance, and Safety Promotion. Each has their own influence on SMS, and they come together to form a complete SMS program. Here is a brief description of each component.

Safety Policy: This is management’s commitment to safety, formally expressed in a statement of the organization's safety policy. A safety policy is written and agreed upon by top management and outlines the exact processes and plans the organization has to achieve desired safety outcomes. This should be the beginning of a positive safety culture that encourages employees to take ownership over their organization’s safety and to ensure they can report safety issues without fear of being reprimanded.

Safety Risk Management (SRM): This component looks at the present and future hazards and risks that the organization faces, then determines if there is an adequate risk control in place to mitigate them. This step often includes a Risk Matrix, or a grid analyzing the likeliness and severity of all possible risk scenarios. This component of SMS is vital for continually analyzing the effectiveness of current risk mitigation methods.

Safety Assurance: Safety Assurance is characterized by self-auditing, external auditing, and safety oversight. This component ensures that the steps taken in safety policy and safety risk management are helping the organization reach their desired safety outcomes. Proper resource allocation and data collecting are vital for this component, as it relies partially on historical information.

Safety Promotion: The human element is at the core of SMS. Having properly trained employees who are passionate about safety will help any organization reach their safety objectives. This component of SMS is all about having a Safety Manager who provides information and training for safety issues relevant to the specific jobs at the airport.

I hope that this brief overview of Safety Management Systems has taught you something new about an effective safety program. The great thing about SMS is that it can be applied to any industry, scenario, and operation. The FAA mandating SMS for certain sectors of aviation is a great move that I believe will eliminate quite a few accidents in the future. What do you think of SMS? Let me know in the comments!

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