SMS Pilot Programs Already Yielding Results

Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 

South Bend Regional

You don't need a crystal ball or tea leaves to see it coming. The topic of safety management systems (SMS) has been popping up at seminars and industry conferences throughout the country ever since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its first Advisory Circular (150/5200-37) on the subject in early 2007. Before that, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) had required SMS from certificated international airports since 2005.

According to FAA SMS program manager Keri Spencer, many of the requirements under Part 139 would support an SMS. However, current compliance with Part 139 in and of itself does not constitute an SMS. Therefore, the FAA opened a rulemaking project to consider a formal requirement for SMS at certificated airports. If the FAA intends to move forward with an SMS requirement, it anticipates issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking in 2010. Based on that timetable, some expect SMS implementation later that year, but not later than 2012.

Whether SMS would be rolled into Part 139 requirements or Part 139 requirements would be included in SMS is still uncertain. Early input from airports already delving into the emerging topic indicates the latter may be more logical.

Facts and Figures

Project: Safety Management System manual

Location: South Bend (IN) Regional

Operator: St. Joseph County Airport Authority

Consultant: Aerofinity

Cost: $150,000

AIP Grant: $100,000

Research/Production: 9 months

Purpose: To further enhance airport safety and provide input to FAA regarding SMS

Next Phase: A follow-up study regarding the implementation of SMS, funded by an additional $220,000 grant, began in October 2008.

"Harmonization with international standards and implementing SMS at U.S. airports in a way that complements Part 139 are topics being explored through the ongoing rulemaking process," notes Spencer.

Just the Basics

In FAA parlance, SMS will provide a "systemic, proactive approach to airport safety." It also identifies four main areas:

• development of an overall safety policy statement and objectives

• safety risk management process - documenting and mitigating identified hazards and their associated risks

• safety assurance - monitoring and measuring the ongoing safety experience and establishing a voluntary and non-punitive safety reporting system that can be used by airport employees, airlines and tenants

• safety promotion - improving the entire airport's safety culture

Another key aspect to SMS is risk management - considering the probabilities of various accidents/incidents and their severity or consequences.

As acting FAA administrator, Robert Sturgell was clear about his position on SMS at an Air Traffic Organization conference last spring: "Without a doubt, I'm convinced that the future of safety is to be found in safety management systems. There's absolutely no question that if we're going to advance, we're going to have to let data drive us ... SMS takes small pieces of data and helps you rack and stack what might seem like minutia. But when you put it all together, the individual puzzle pieces form a different picture altogether."

Early Adopters

Thirty airports are getting a head start on creating their SMS manuals and implementation plans through FAA pilot programs. (See list on page 41.)

South Bend Regional in Indiana relished the opportunity to participate - not only because it agrees with the basic premise of SMS, but also to represent airports its size during the development of FAA policies. (Last year South Bend Regional logged just less than 57,000 aircraft operations; its five regional carriers service nine cities.)

"It was exciting to be on the front end of something this big", says Bruce MacLachlan, manager of operations and maintenance at South Bend. "We applaud the FAA for allowing the industry to help develop the program instead of deciding everything itself then rolling a program out to the airports. We wanted to make sure the challenges faced by small airports were considered, and our voice has been heard."

In July, the FAA launched a second pilot for Class II, III and IV airports. Eight airports, some even smaller than South Bend, are participating and further broadening the input to the FAA.

"Some of the big airports will hire someone just to handle SMS; smaller airports like us will more likely roll it into an existing position and ask someone to wear an additional hat," explains

MacLachlan, South Bend's recently designated safety manager and airport security coordinator.

SMS dovetailed smoothly with South Bend's previous efforts to increase safety and lower associated costs.

"We had fairly high workers' comp expenses," MacLachlan explains, "so we undertook a rigorous program of safety conscientiousness."

In the last five to six years, South Bend has cut its workers' compensation multiplier in half and lowered its premiums accordingly. The $100,000 grant it received to participate in the SMS pilot program helped extend those efforts in yet another direction. Larger airports received $200,000 for the pilot study. Indianapolis International and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson did not apply for grants; it participated at its own costs.

South Bend was also selected for a subsequent one-year program to study the implementation of the SMS plan written in the first pilot. Seattle-Tacoma International and Concord (NC) Regional are also participating in the "follow-on" study.

A Few Specifics

With the first pilot study complete, executives at South Bend are enthusiastic about the overall merits of SMS.

"We can see it's going to pay off in the end - not just for us, but for the entire industry," says MacLachlan. "The benefits will definitely be worth it."

Although SMS is not prompting any major changes in safety practices at South Bend, it is formalizing processes and policies already in place.

Aerofinity, the consultant South Bend hired to help produce its SMS program, began by performing a gap analysis - comparing systems and policies currently in place at South Bend to those outlined in ICAO requirements, the FAA Advisory Circular and best practices at other airports.

"We found that South Bend already had many of the necessary elements, they just needed to put them into SMS format," notes Aerofinity director Dave Fleet. "I think that's largely what other airports will find, too."

Specific items addressed at South Bend include production of an "overarching safety policy," development of a formal risk assessment process and the clear identification of a safety manager and "an accountable executive" - the ICAO term for the person ultimately responsible for safety at the top of the organizational chart.

"Airports shouldn't let SMS turn into a big, scary project," emphasizes Fleet. "It's just a systematic approach to what they've been doing for years."

Fleet cites safety meetings as a prime example: "You don't have to schedule 12 or 24 more specific safety meetings each year. Just make sure the right items are being reported at your existing staff meetings. As long as you have standing agenda items tracking safety performance in the right areas, you're covered."

SMS Pilot Participants

Allegheny County (PA)

Austin-Bergstrom (TX) International

Baltimore-Washington International

Blue Grass Airport (KY)

Cheyenne (WY) Regional

Concord (NC) Regional

Dallas-Ft. Worth International

Daytona Beach (FL) International

Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County

Dubuque (IA) Regional Airport

Fort Worth (TX) Alliance

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International *

Indianapolis International *

Jacksonville (FL) International

Jackson (MS) Municipal

Kona (HI) International

North Las Vegas

Ohio State University

Sacramento (CA) International

San Antonio International

Santa Maria (CA) Public

Seattle-Tacoma International

Show Low (AZ) Regional

Sloulin Field (ND)

South Bend (IN) Regional

Southern Illinois

Talladega (AL) Municipal

Tallahassee (FL) Regional

Teterboro (NJ)

Toledo (OH) Express

* Airports not applying for AIP grants

Tough Stuff

MacLachlan predicts the biggest challenges of implementing SMS at any other airport will involve the human elements.

"Getting people to take that extra step and think about safety on an airport-wide basis instead of just concentrating on their piece of the pie is everything," he says. "That's how we'll make continual improvements."

The FAA acting administrator himself addressed the same topic: "SMS isn't something you pull off the shelf when the need arises. It's got to be maintained. It's got to be ingrained."

A voluntary, non-punitive system for reporting breaches in safety is a key tenet in the SMS framework.

"Employees can't be afraid that they'll get in trouble or lose their jobs if they uncover or even cause a problem," MacLachlan explains. "That's why it is so important that the airlines and air traffic control people are included in the SMS process. We can't tell other organizations how to operate their business, but we all have to coexist and work toward a common goal of always improving our safety performance. It's a long-term process."

Complete elimination of accidents has not been part of the SMS landscape. James Reason, author of "Human Error" and co-author of "Beyond Aviation Human Factors" addresses the topic in a colorful way: "Safety is like fighting a guerilla war in which you are never able to declare total victory."

That doesn't stop MacLachlan from making it the goal at South Bend Regional.

The initial step in its SMS process - creating a first-generation manual - took almost a full year.

"It's a time-consuming process, even with a consultant helping," notes MacLachlan.

He expects the benefits, however, to last exponentially longer.

For More Information

Safety Management Systems for Airports, Vol. 1, is a 30-page booklet from the Transportation Research Board's Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) that explains what an SMS is and how a systems approach to safety management benefits the safety and business aspects of airports. It is available in hardcopy for $32 and free online.

Another ACRP guidebook to help airports develop and implement SMS is expected to be available this spring. The SMS guidebook will describe the associated concepts, methodologies, processes, tools and safety performance measurements that can be applied by airports based on their level of operations and complexity.

Visit (and enter SMS in the search field of the Airports & Air Traffic tab) for more details on both publications.


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