AIN Blog: Torqued: FAA's Inaction on SMS Speaks Louder than Words

 - November 1, 2013, 12:05 AM

The FAA talks a lot about the importance of safety management systems. It has several web pages dedicated to SMS. Newsletters dedicated to SMS. And employees certainly talk it up at internal and external meetings. But talk is cheap, as we all know. If the FAA is serious about SMS and the benefits of a structured, data-driven approach to identifying and eliminating or mitigating hazards to aviation, it needs to make SMS mandatory throughout the aviation industry. There’s no way to garner the full benefits of SMS by depending solely on volunteer adoption. For one thing, a lot of entities just won’t do it voluntarily. 

Well, to date it’s pretty clear that the FAA’s failure to promulgate rules speaks volumes about its real commitment to SMS. And, no, making SMS mandatory does not mean one-size-fits-all. It would be ludicrous to expect small mom-and-pop Part 135 operators to have the same extensive SMS as major Part 121 airlines. But it’s also ludicrous to expect a universal embracing of SMS in the absence of a rule. It takes time, commitment and money to develop and implement an SMS program. Many operators I’ve spoken with who would adopt an SMS are leery of spending time and money developing an SMS without knowing when and if the FAA is going to issue rules, rules that could conflict with their own programs and require them to make expensive changes.

If you don’t think the FAA has been slow on SMS, compare its efforts to ICAO’s. No one has ever accused the International Civil Aviation Organization of operating in haste. As an international body, it operates at–to be diplomatic–a deliberative pace. After all, it consults and coordinates with its 191 member countries and ultimately requires a large percentage of them to concur before changes to international aviation standards can be written and implemented. But compared with the glacial pace of FAA rulemaking, ICAO operates at lightning speed.

U.S. Lagging Behind

Let’s do a quick comparison of where ICAO is with SMS and where the FAA is. Why does it matter, you ask? Lagging behind the international community on a signature safety initiative is not good for the FAA’s international prestige. It’s not good for maintaining the U.S.’s reputation for pre-eminence in aviation. And it’s not good for the reputation of our aviation operators. The FAA risks making the U.S. look exceptional, and not in a good way.

Here’s a recap of where the slow, deliberative ICAO is on SMS and where the FAA is. In 2006, ICAO issued its first SMS directive to member states. It required these countries to mandate SMS implementation for a number of operators, including air carriers, repair stations and international general aviation in large and jet aircraft by Jan. 1, 2009.  Even in 2006, the FAA must have figured that mandating SMS was not going to be fast. Having determined that it could not make ICAO’s 2009 deadline, it filed so-called differences with ICAO, which basically means that the FAA would not be complying with this international standard. Three years may have seemed like a long enough time for ICAO, but it clearly wasn’t for the FAA

The FAA did manage to issue an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) in June 2009, six months after ICAO’s implementation due date. An ANPRM is a tool of bureaucratic delay; it seems that providing notice and an opportunity for comment to the industry and the public is just not enough any more. The FAA has to provide for notice of a notice, and hence the advanced notice. But I digress.

While the FAA was dithering, the international community continued to advance its focus on SMS. In 2010, an ICAO safety conference recommended that SMS requirements be given their own chapter (Annex in ICAO-speak). One of the main reasons for the decision to give SMS its own annex was to elevate the importance of SMS to member states and the aviation industry. In other words, ICAO believed that SMS was so critical to aviation safety that it dedicated an entire Annex to it. That might not seem like such a big deal, but to put things in perspective, this is the first new ICAO annex in four decades.

So, fast-forward three years and Annex 19 has been adopted and it takes effect this month–November 2013. While this is a big symbolic step, in fact the new annex does not–yet–add new international requirements. It pulls out SMS requirements from other annexes and reorganizes them into Annex 19. But since the FAA never complied with the 2006 ICAO requirements, it won’t be in compliance with Annex 19.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., progress on the SMS front seemed promising when the President signed the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Act of 2010 on August 1 of that year. The law required the FAA to issue a rule mandating SMS for Part 121 air carriers, less than what ICAO required but it seemed like a good place to start. The law required the FAA to publish an NPRM within 90 days and a final rule within 24 months of the law’s enactment. The FAA almost made the first deadline, issuing an NPRM on Nov. 5, 2010. It seemed that rulemaking was finally under way. Unfortunately, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, that rulemaking has come to a halt. The deadline for a final rule has come and gone. In fact more than 14 months from the last day established by law for a final rule have come and gone. More than three years have passed from the law’s enactment and more than seven from ICAO’s first SMS requirement.

So when the FAA defies a federal law requiring an SMS final rule, it says a lot about what the FAA thinks of SMS. Come to think of it, it tells me that the FAA regards itself as above the law. In any event, while things were at a standstill on the air carrier regulatory front, it seemed some progress was being made on an SMS rule for Part 139 airports (those that serve Part 121 air carriers).  That is until the FAA published its SMS Statement in January this year. It appears that advanced notices and just plain notices of proposed rulemaking are really just not enough notice. So now the FAA is planning to issue a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking (SNPRM). It expects to issue this supplemental notice in December. I won’t be holding my breath.