FAA forum focuses on SMS

 - December 27, 2007, 11:41 AM

“If I talk to ten people, I get ten different versions of what they believe an SMS [Safety Management System] is,” FAA associate administrator of aviation safety Nick Sabatini told attendees at the fourth FAA International Aviation Safety Forum.

An SMS is built on a framework of a good quality management system and good regulation that establishes standards. It is a business approach to managing risk. It is not a panacea. “For those of you who are looking for an off-the-shelf box where you reach in and pull out the SMS magic, it doesn’t exist,” he explained.

Acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell said that an SMS helps organizations identify and manage risk by looking at hard data rather than waiting for something untoward to happen or relying on anecdotal information.

“Safety management systems help us manage risk far better than we have, because it’s a disciplined and standardized approach to managing risk,” said Sturgell. “We can review past experience and address known hazards at the same time we can look ahead and rigorously apply safety risk management.”

At the core of SMS is identifying potential hazards and analyzing risk, he said. After that, the next steps are to rank hazards and assess risk, and identify mitigation options. “It is a closed-loop process where identified risks are mitigated and the mitigations are monitored to provide continuous system safety,” he added.

Sturgell said that the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization is adopting an SMS for its operational policies, processes and procedures. In addition, the agency’s Aviation Safety organization developed an SMS doctrine and is moving to implement it.

“The next logical step to enhance safety is what I see as the evolution from ‘inspecting safety’ to taking a systems approach with SMS,” Sturgell told the attendees. “That’s a fundamental difference with the SMS approach; the process itself is overseen. The burden is on the service providers to ensure the safety of the products and services it provides–whether it is design and production of aircraft, airline operations or ATC. In this way, both regulator and service provider can better target resources based on risk.”

The SMS is a structure of voluntary, non-punitive reporting methods set up with an organization to foster safety awareness, he said. Even small pieces of information can indicate a larger problem before it becomes a catastrophe.

Sturgell said that SMS is being implemented in accordance with International Civil Aviation Organization standards that are changing to apply a systems approach to aviation safety in all aviation domains.

He asserted that the FAA’s recent “call to action” for runway safety is an example of SMS principles in action. “We’ve had a string of events that pointed to a problem with our runways,” he continued. “They involved a variety of factors–miscommunications, missed turns on taxiways, a snowplow, missed turns onto an active runway, signage.”

When the agency issued the “call to action,” it looked at 5.4 million records covering a 20-year period and found 117 instances of flight crew confusion involving a variety of issues. Sturgell said the “call to action” is addressing the issues, and short-term actions such as enhancing runway markings and improving pilot training are already under way.

During one of several panel discussions, Randy Gaston, v-p of flight operations for Gulfstream Aerospace, said that for the business aviation community, the challenge is finding a model that is a safety management system rather than a safety program.

“The predominant model for all of my flying career has been for safety programs, which really are nothing more than a reactive response to something,” he said. “Something happens and you try to come up with another rule or response that minimizes that. It’s really not data driven. So what you are really trying to do is come up with a system that [provides] information that allows you to make intelligent decisions about how you want to try to manage risk.”

He said that two years ago the Gulfstream flight operations group embarked on an SMS involving its 100 pilots. They asked how they could define whether they were safe or not, since they never had an accident.

Gulfstream went through the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) to try to get an international standard, which Gaston characterized as a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

The group decided it needed a third party to monitor operations because there are so many demands on the pilots. “To have a good safety management system, it has to be data-driven,” he said.

Gaston said that Gulfstream is encouraging customers to adopt an SMS through its owner-operator committees.