Safety Management Systems - The Future of Aviation

Unless you’re working in an airline, you probably haven’t heard too much about Safety Management Systems, otherwise known as SMS.  While everyone in the industry is mostly likely focused on safety or has some kind of safety program, SMS is becoming the standard throughout the world.

What is SMS?

SMS was first conceived by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).  Specifically, SMS is the formal, top-down, business-like approach to managing safety risk, which includes a systemic approach to managing safety, including the necessary organization structures, accountabilities, policies and procedures (  The whole idea behind SMS is to treat safety as an equally important component of a company, such as an airline or flight school.  To explain SMS a little further, I’ll break SMS down into its four components:  Safety Policy, Safety Risk Management, Safety Assurance, and Safety Promotion.

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Safety Policy

Safety Policy is the foundation on which the other four components are built – it’s specifically strategic in nature.  A safety policy means there is a documented commitment to safety by the certificate holder whether it be a flight school like the University of North Dakota (UND) Aerospace that holds a Part 141 certificate, or an airline like Delta that holds a Part 121 certificate.  Now, this Safety Policy isn’t merely a piece of paper – it’s a document that outlines the company’s safety objectives in addition to the accountabilities and responsibilities of the employees with regards to safety.

Before you think that a Safety Policy is a “one-and-done” type of document, think again.  This first portion of SMS is the most crucial for an organization because it not only creates an accountable executive who is ultimately responsible, but also makes the connection between the “how” with the “what”.  For instance, organizations like UND Aerospace and Delta have some sort of SMS Standard or Manual that shows “how” the organization will fulfill that commitment to safety – these are the policies that make the other components of SMS possible.  After putting a Safety Policy into place, the next component is Safety Risk Management.

Safety Risk Management

The Safety Risk Management component, or SRM, is designed to describe the system (i.e., the organization), identify hazards, analyze, assess, and control risk (SMS Voluntary Program Edition 1, Rev. 2).  This description is somewhat vague, so let’s define this more. 

SRM is about creating a set of actions that has the end goal of reducing risk to the lowest, practical level.  Even though we’re reducing that risk to the lowest level, this doesn’t mean we can totally eliminate risk.  The point behind SRM is to still accomplish the mission, but with the risk that is low enough to the point where management is willing to accept whatever risk remains.

The graph below is a good representation of what SRM might look like for an organization.  This process might be triggered for implementation of new systems, revising existing systems, developing new operational procedures, and identifying hazards or risk controls that are no longer effective.  Now, when we think of SRM, we might tend to fixate specifically just on the actual risk instead of all of the other parts of managing safety.  So, let’s focus a little on Risk Assessment in the SRM process for the moment.

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In the graph above is an example of a risk matrix tool.  This tool provides a way for an organization to make the connection between the effect of the severity of the outcome and the probability of the occurrence.  This allows a person to assess risks, compare effectiveness of possible risk controls, and prioritize risks when there are more than one present.  This matrix is often used at UND as tool that students employ before they fly – it could have variables built in for how much sleep they had the night before, how many hours since they last ate, how long since the last time they flew, and more.   While Risk Assessment is just portion of the SRM process, we should remember not to fixate on that part alone – as in the graph I showed earlier, there are portions such as Risk Control, Risk Acceptance, and Risk Analysis that all figure into the SRM equation.

For now, we’ll move on to the third SMS component: Safety Assurance.

Safety Assurance

A component that works in tandem with SRM is Safety Assurance, or SA.  This is defined as the processes within the SMS that function systematically to ensure the performance and effectiveness of safety risk controls and that the organization meets or exceeds its safety objectives through the collection analysis and assessment of information (SMSVP Edition 1, Rev. 2).

So, let’s break down SA a little:  first we start with system operation/monitoring, then we move on to data acquisition and processes which are analyzed, and then the system is assessed, and a preventive/corrective action is applied.  The graph below shows how SA process is integrated with the SRM process. 

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While the SA process may seem benign, the last step scares most people – no matter what level of the organization they are at.  Each organization should really strive to impress the importance of every employee being involved in an SMS program.   In addition, it is the responsibility of all employees to follow the procedures and policies that are put into place.  When everyone is not complying, the risk is increased and it’s difficult to determine if our controls are functioning as we planned or if they are ineffective.  This process of SA leads us into the final component of SMS: Safety Promotion.

Safety Promotion

Our last component, Safety Promotion, is the most important – it’s the glue that holds SMS together.  This includes the training, communication, and anything else that is used to create a positive safety culture throughout your organization as a whole. 

For instance, organizations like UND and Delta Airlines have whole manuals detailing how everyday business (i.e., operations) is carried out in relation to safety.  UND has certain airports that students are approved to land at in certain weather – similarly, Delta has weather and visibility minimums.  Students, instructors, and flight crews learn this through company publications, safety seminars and bulletins, emails, and initial and recurrent training.  New information, policies, and procedures are passed throughout the organization to create a constant stream of communication and promotion.  This is often the minimum that publications from the FAA and ICAO require, but organizations can tailor their programs to offer the former and more.

The SMS Program in Harmony

It’s important to note that SMS can’t simply be “done” by focusing on one part more than the other.  The program relies on the interdependency of all four components in order to be effective.  In addition, the beauty of SMS is that it is scalable meaning each organization can make it as big or as small as the needs of their organization.  What Delta does for their company isn’t often the best model for a school like UND or even a different organization such as an airport.

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While SMS is a relatively new program, the potential for what it could become for many areas of the aerospace industry is astounding.  Again, while many areas of the industry aren’t required to be in compliance, we know it’s only a matter of time before the FAA mandates it. 

So, what about you, reader?  Does your organization have an SMS program?  If so, what does it look like?

Please feel free to leave comments about your organization and how you’re applying SMS.