Safety Management Systems: Lessons from the Airline Sector

Safety Management Systems: Lessons from the Airline Sector
Jodi Richards
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In Part One of our two-part series, we examine the roots of Safety Management Systems at commercial airlines. Next issue, we’ll profile airports that are developing their own programs.   

Nearly a decade ago, the FAA Safety Organization issued a final rule requiring Part 121 certificated operators—scheduled commercial airlines—to implement Safety Management Plans. The goal was to help carriers detect and correct safety risks before they become hazards.

When issuing the rule in January 2015, the agency defined a safety management system (SMS) as an organization-wide comprehensive and preventive approach to managing safety. It also identified four necessary components:

  • a safety policy,
  • formal methods for identifying hazards and mitigating risks,
  • assuring safety performance and
  • promoting a positive safety culture.

Developed with input from an SMS Aviation Rulemaking Committee and public comments, the requirement was based on lessons learned from Flight Standards SMS pilot projects. Republic Airways started its SMS journey in 2011, when it participated in one of the FAA pilot programs. “It was an interesting process, and there were a lot of moving pieces,” recalls Bradley Elstad, the airline’s vice president of Corporate Safety, Security and Compliance.

Paul Morell, vice president of Safety, Security and Regulatory Compliance with US Airways at the time, credits FAA for using a highly cooperative voluntary program to introduce airlines to the concept of SMS. As he explains it, US Airways worked with FAA on a pilot program because, “it’s better to be a part of something and build it, than to have something built around you and then have to work toward it.”

That was Morell’s take during his time with US Airways, and he then served in a similar role with American Airlines. Now, Morell is even further entrenched in the subject of safety in his business development role at ProDIGIQ, a company that develops SMS software and a broad range of other technology systems for the aviation industry.

In February 2023, FAA published its final rule on SMS for Part 139 certificated airports. As airport operators work to meet the requirement, they can gain perspective and learn lessons from airlines that have already navigated the process.

Underlying Philosophies

Per FAA, the foundational elements of SMS are:

Interdependence: There is a strong correlation between safety culture and accident prevention. Management’s constant attention, commitment and visible leadership are essential to guiding an organization toward a positive safety performance.

Safety Culture: It takes time, practice and repetition, the appropriate attitude, a cohesive approach and constant coaching from involved mentors.

Management Framework: A safety culture matures as safety management skills are learned and practiced and become second nature across an organization.

Involvement From Management: Airport leaders should demonstrate their commitment to and involvement in safe operations. Safety cultures cannot be created or implemented by decree; management must set up policies and processes that create a working environment that fosters safe behavior.

Group Effort

Intended to be designed and developed by members of an operator’s organization, FAA advises an SMS should be integrated into operations and business decision-making processes as well as assist an organization’s leadership and employees in making effective and informed safety decisions.

FAA advises operators to integrate an SMS into their daily functions and business decision-making processes. It should also be used to help leadership and employees make effective and informed safety decisions.

“SMS is entrenched in safety culture,” says Elstad. “Safety is a core value for the organization and is part of how the business is run.”

That said, an SMS does not have to be large, complex or expensive to add value. The important factors are active involvement from operational leaders, open lines of communication, vigilance in looking for new applications and ensuring employees understand that safety is an essential part of their job performance.

Republic began the process with six certificates under its umbrella. The carrier first reduced them to three, and ultimately merged its three certificates into one. “The best part of that was as we merged our certificates into each other, we were able to go through every procedure and do a mini risk assessment—using the SMS process—to decide which procedure was best, adopt it and go,” Elstad states.

Working as a cohesive team, the carrier reviewed and evaluated its entire 58-volume manual system; and six years to the day, FAA accepted Republic’s SMS. “It was customized by total immersion into the process,” recalls Elstad. That, in turn, led to systemwide adoption and acceptance, plus all of the expectations that go with it, he adds.

The framework of an SMS encourages regulatory compliance, better use of resources and holistic responsibility for safety. “The biggest thing is that there’s a consistency in how the business is run,” Elstad says. If and when there is a change in policy or procedure, everyone has access to the documented risk assessment and mitigation strategies. The same is true when something different, such as a new aircraft, is introduced.

Elstad notes that many of the processes and procedures Republic had in place fit directly into the SMS framework; they just hadn’t been documented or presented in that manner. “I think airports will find that as well,” he predicts. “A lot of things they do today already meet the SMS criteria. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Morell agrees that the SMS process looked complicated at first, but many of the requirements were already being met through existing practices and just needed to be adapted and formalized under SMS. “We looked at the big picture and took an inventory of everything we were doing and saw how it fit into the concept of SMS,” he says.

“A lot of airlines were familiar with the SMS process and had the mechanisms in place,” agrees George Paul, vice president of Technical Services at NACA. “Then it was just a matter of modifying to make sure they meet all the intentions of the rule.”

One department at a time, US Airways built its SMS program collaboratively. The Safety Department acted as facilitators, and each department was able to use the prior department’s template as a starting point. Morell notes that an all-hands-on-deck approach was extremely important for perpetuating a safety-minded culture and ensuring organizational buy-in. “Employees and management feel they are going to get a benefit from this and it’s going to be a tool that helps them succeed,” he observes. “That’s important.”

Morell emphasizes the need to involve employees in the process and foster a sense of ownership. He suggests letting staff members at all levels know they are essential to the success of SMS, and they can make a difference.

Involving employees also helps eliminate the informational silos that often exist in organizations. For example, risk assessments and mitigation measures often involve more than one department. SMS “brings people together as a function or process…to create cross-pollination of all the departments working together,” he explains.

“The key is getting all employees involved,” agrees Paul. Creating variety on committees to share information and encouragement, not to mention positive feedback from management, should not be discounted, he adds. 

Elstad notes that SMS training is important to ensure that all members of an organization understand and embrace the process.

Importantly, SMS provides an opportunity to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to hazards and risks.

Tech Tool

As SMS matured, the question was asked—as it often is—if technology could streamline the associated data collection and reporting functions.

Because documentation is such an integral part of SMS, having a software system that “speaks SMS” is invaluable, says Elstad. Republic Airways and a consortium of airlines ultimately partnered with ProDIGIQ in 2016 to develop a software system specifically for its SMS—a central repository for risk assessments and mitigation strategies.

As SMS and data collection evolved further, developers added analysis and reporting capabilities that can yield beneficial information to increase employee, passenger and tenant safety. The result was ProSafeT, a comprehensive safety and risk management software platform designed to coordinate collected data and cover all four pillars of SMS.

Technology that ensures reporting is seamless, intuitive and user-friendly increases the data in the system, which leads to increased safety, says Anita Venkataraman, president and chief technology officer of ProDIGIQ Inc. “When you look at safety, there are clues in every report and data that gives insight into events that might happen.”

Lessons Learned

For Elstad, one key takeaway from participating in FAA’s pilot program for airlines is that SMS is scalable. While the regulation is standard, carriers (and eventually airports) can account for size, scope, international/domestic operations, fleet type, etc. “Every SMS is fundamentally structured the same, but they all vary on their scalability, and operators can find the right fit of SMS to meet their operational needs,” he assures.

Elstad says data sharing—where all systems can “talk” to each other—has proven tremendously beneficial. As airports develop and implement their own SMS, the potential for airlines and airports to share data portends exciting possibilities. When a risk is mutually identified by a carrier and an airport, shared data could help develop a documentable risk mitigation strategy. “If we have the same data, we can get both perspectives and mutually come to a conclusion, which is a huge benefit,” he says.

“As SMS matures, we look forward to the fact that FAA has mandated SMS for airports, service providers and aerospace manufacturing because that creates the opportunity for the intersection of information and we can create collective solutions,” adds Elstad. “That maturing is going to provide a lot more opportunity for everybody to work together and create consistency.”

Paul hopes that as airports work toward SMS compliance, the entire industry will eventually embrace information sharing. “If the two systems could tie into each other, that would be ideal,” he says. “There are a lot of silos, and this is opening up the silos.”

Looking ahead, Paul says that artificial intelligence and machine learning might someday be used to review data and identify trends. “If you get the taxonomy in place where AI could search for key words, then give a report for a human to do the analysis, that would save a lot of time,” he says hopefully. “But it’s still in its infancy right now.”

Ultimately, Paul considers SMS a safety win for the industry. “Just look at the track record of aviation safety,” he urges. “You can see, it’s quite an improvement.”

Fear Not

Even though developing an SMS may seem like a big undertaking, Elstad emphasizes that airports should not fear or dread the process. “Once you really understand that it’s entrenched in accountability and everybody is a part of that process, it works really well,” he says. “It’s formalized and organized, and it’s how businesses in a complex industry like ours need to operate to be successful. It’s for the betterment of the industry.”

Venkataraman also offers further reassurance: “The airlines have been down this path, and airports can learn lessons from that journey.”  


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