Preparing for the Future of SMS

 - March 1, 2021, 8:30 AM
(Photo: David McIntosh)

A few months after FAA Administrator Steve Dickson outlined plans to release regulations requiring safety management systems (SMS) for Part 135 charter and 145 repair station operations next year, the FAA is said to be “far along” in this rulemaking effort. The question is, though, are the vast and varied numbers of Part 135/145 operators ready for it.

While the FAA released a regulation in 2015 requiring Part 121 scheduled carriers to implement SMS, the agency has long encouraged other operations to voluntarily adopt such programs. To that end, the agency has had a voluntary program in place to help facilitate the implementation of SMS programs. That is just one pathway to an SMS program for operations. A number of companies specializing in aviation safety have developed detailed software to help organizations implement their own SMS. In addition, one of the leading-recognized international safety programs, IS-BAO, incorporates SMS as a foundation.

Even so, a large number of operations are expected to need to adopt SMS, or at least more fully adopt it, once the rulemaking is released. The exact number is unknown because so many have incorporated plans on their own or through the private program providers.

Looking at just Part 135, the FAA’s database recognizes just under 2,000 certificated operators. Of those, 26 programs are accepted into the FAA’s voluntary program with another 157 in the works. Meanwhile, according to the International Business Aviation Council, more than 1,000 business aviation operators have achieved IS-BAO recognition, but only about 30 percent of those involve certificated air carriers, and that’s worldwide.

This lack of adoption came sharply into focus during the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the Jan. 26, 2020, Island Express crash that killed basketball player Kobe Bryant, his daughter, six other passengers, and the pilot. The NTSB called the accident preventable and said, “We have long believed in the benefits of SMS. Although the company used some SMS tools, it did not implement the entire program and did not perform any safety assurance evaluations.”

With an eye on these concerns and on the looming regulations, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) teamed up with the Department of Transportation’s Transportation Safety Institute (TSI) to develop a week-long course on SMS for the 135/145 community.

In tandem, NATA created a new Air Transport Safety Manager certification through the International Society of Safety Professionals (ISSP) for members who take the course and an associated certification exam. The certification program is designed to help elevate the professionalism and status of safety managers. The certification also provides a path toward achieving the ISSP Certified International Safety Manager status held by safety leaders such as Convergence Performance founder Tony Kern.

“Business aviation is a unique space, providing new challenges every day and opportunities to engage in continuous improvement,” said NATA senior v-p Ryan. Waguespack. “This collaboration with TSI, along with our new SMS pilot program, allows NATA and its members to take our shared mission of advancing aviation business safety to a new level.”

Calling the program the first of its kind, Waguespack, in announcing the program, stressed, “The future of aviation safety hinges on collaboration and the exchange of best practices and data.”

Huge Need for Training

Based at the expansive Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, TSI is not part of the FAA but is a separate organization within the Department of Transportation that provides a host of courses across multiple modes of transportation. Now 50 years old, the institute has trained upwards of one million transportation professionals from the private and public sectors.

The TSI menu includes a bevy of aviation safety management, accident investigation, and other courses, making it the right fit for NATA’s vision of an in-depth course on SMS.

NATA and TSI initially lined up four weeks for the course at its Oklahoma City location, but Roger Hood, course manager for TSI’s Aviation Safety Division, expects the course to continue on into the future. “We understand there’s going to be a huge need for this training over the next five to ten years,” he said. “We have very high demand.”

Because class sizes at Oklahoma City have been limited during the pandemic and some people may not want to travel, TSI is looking at alternative sites to accommodate others, he said. In addition, the course is spurring interest in some of TSI's more specific programs and follow-on courses. Wood noted that based on comments, TSI is working on a supplemental three-day course on implementation. 

Noting the coming regulations, Hood said, “It’s extremely important to ensure Part 135 and 145 [operations] are able to meet the regulations.” But also, he said this is a good time to get prepared before they are mandated.

NATA and TSI invited me to audit the course and I took the opportunity, choosing a week in January. I have covered SMS and written about safety programs but taking such a course would give me a better understanding of what is involved and what it might take to incorporate SMS into an organization. And in fact, it also got me thinking about my own organization’s safety protocols.

Before we (the students) attended the class, we were instructed to read and familiarize ourselves with Part 5, the FAR created to house SMS regulations, along with the accompanying Advisory Circular 120-92B that provides guidance on implementation. Part 5 is a fairly simple regulation, but I would not characterize the AC as light reading. However, in fairness, it is far better than many other ACs I’ve read or attempted to read.

Course managers wanted to make sure we had a basic knowledge of the regulation because the week-long training takes a deep dive into it with a “how-to” approach. This is important because the FAA’s SMS rulemaking for Parts 135 and 145 is believed to be largely based on Part 5.

Reading through the regulation, and AC, it struck me that every section had language on the scalability of the required elements of SMS.

The language underscores the FAA’s effort to create a rule that could be tailored to all sizes of operations. The AC acknowledges the differences in size and complexity of operations and the volume of data available but says Part 5 “allows organizations of different sizes to meet those requirements in different ways. The SMS functions do not need to be extensive or complex to be effective.”

Whether it accomplishes that goal remains to be seen. In January NATA launched a Voluntary SMS Implementation Project involving 10 operators of varied sizes and geographical locations to evaluate the application of SMS across the diverse Part 135 charter and Part 145 repair station communities, particularly in areas such as data collection and assessment and training.

Hood opened the class with introductions, highlighting the depth of experience of the instructors—most of whom remained with the class throughout the week, on hand to answer questions or go over individual concerns. This included D Smith, the manager of TSI’s Aviation Safety Division.

Students also introduced themselves. A number represented well-known charter operators and MROs, or maintenance divisions within operators. Some of these students have SMS but were trying to enhance their programs. Others were part of the way there, trying to build it out. Not all were from large establishments or traditional charter/MRO operations. For example, one represented a university flight school trying to establish an SMS. Another was an aviation professional who was attending the course as part of his advanced studies.

But all were active, engaged participants and looking to bring their lessons back home. And the lessons were clearly applicable. One participant was adding a location, another group involved in a merger, and still another trying to elevate the importance of safety programs within their organization.

And that was a takeaway from me. Adding a facility isn’t simply bricks and mortar and hiring people. Every step of that addition, from personnel to equipment to training, needs to be considered through a safety prism. In fact, that was the point, to build a culture where safety is part of the entire fabric of an organization. Safety isn’t a priority, Smith said, noting priorities change and can be negotiable. Safety must be a principle, a guiding philosophy.

The Four Pillars

The FAA says an SMS is intended to provide for a systematic approach to achieving acceptable levels of safety risk; it is essentially a decision-making process that relies on four pillars—a safety policy, safety risk management, safety assurance, and safety promotion.

A safety policy is essentially a contract that establishes the commitment to SMS. Another key takeaway stressed in the course and by the FAA material is the importance of buy-in from the top of an organization.

The safety policy must be signed by the “accountable manager.” The accountable manager is not necessarily the chief safety officer. It is the manager who has financial and decision-making responsibilities for the entire organization. In other words, the accountable manager typically is someone in the senior leadership team. This lays the commitment for the safety program at the hands of the top layers of an organization.

Too often, Smith said, organizations say safety is a priority and then pick a person that they think could throw safety oversight onto their plate in addition to whatever other role they hold. Then the organization can wash its hands of it, saying it is taken care of. But Part 5 ensures that doesn’t happen.

On the first day, Hood provided an overview of the safety policy, detailing its elements. It is not just a simple statement that an organization wants to be safe. It needs to include safety objectives, the commitment to that objective, a clear statement of the resources that will be dedicated to ensuring it can be carried out, a commitment to a safety reporting element, a definition of unacceptable behavior, and the provisions for an emergency response plan. The policy is designed to underscore management’s commitment to continually improve safety through processes and organizational structure. An organization must communicate this policy to its employees and continually review it to ensure it meets the needs of the organization.

The class opened with an overview from Greg Carroll from the FAA, who gave an overview of lessons learned from his experience working with certificate holders, providing a common-sense view of what has worked best—“keep it simple” and “involve front-line employees,” for example. 

Also helpful is the class provides examples of different approaches to a safety policy, including TSI’s own safety policy along with those of Jet Linx, which has implemented an SMS program that is so successful that it is being used as a template for the NATA voluntary SMS pilot program. In addition, Million Air furnished a safety policy for the class.

While opening with safety policy, the class delves into the other three pillars of SMS.

Kodey Bogart, owner of KB Solutions Safety Management and who helps write the safety certification exam, and Smith provided a presentation giving the explanation of risk management, explaining the difference between risks and gambling (one involves informed assessment, the other guesswork), and stressing that this is an ongoing process.

Risk management can be carried out in a number of ways, but essentially involves identifying the hazard and assessing the risk associated with the hazard, including the likelihood and severity. It also looks at controls and potential outcomes.

There are color-coded matrices available that enable safety managers to visualize the severity and likelihoods associated with risk to help guide informed decisions. Having the ability to make informed decisions is critical because most organizations do not have unlimited resources to devote to every risk.

TSI brought in Jerry Kosbab, president of AeroDirections who has become world-renowned in the safety community for his expertise with the “BowTie” approach to risk management. Under this approach, we were to look at a hazard, defined as something that is a normal part of business but has the potential of harm if control is lost, and then determine a “top event” that occurs from that hazard. The top event is described as “a deviation from the desired state or activity” but recovery is still possible. That is the center of the BowTie.

At the left of the BowTie are threats involved with the hazards and possible preventative controls to mitigate the threats. To the right of the BowTie are “recovery controls” (what you do in response to the top event) and consequences.

We had class exercises on forming a risk matrix as well as BowTies, and you realize how different organizations can take markedly different approaches to risk management. These approaches can be granular (my class group worked on a BowTie surrounding the introduction to bag loaders) to something much broader, such as a new facility or ownership. The week after our class, Kosbab explained the BowTie to the rotorcraft community during a Helicopter Association International-hosted webinar.

As with everything else throughout our class, we were given blank forms that we could use as tools to forward our efforts. Another takeaway for me throughout the several sessions on risk management is that an organization must dig deep and think critically about all of its operations to ensure that safety is part of the fabric. This includes from a high-level view to a detailed view. 

Terry Taylor—a 40-year aviation veteran with 20 years of safety management experience at the FAA, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, TSI, and his own Chameleon company—explained the difference between the SMS pillars of safety risk management and safety assurance: risk management answers whether the system is capable of operating safely, effectively, and within the requirements of the regulations; safety assurance answers whether the organization is following the system as designed, is it operating safely and effectively, and does it have the data to back that up.

In other words, safety assurance is constantly monitoring and ensuring that a company’s risk management is working. To get there, there must be continuous and periodic monitoring, as well as auditing and comprehensive evaluations. While it can overlap with quality assurance, safety assurance is different. Some of the quality assurance programs may apply to safety assurance but may need to be modified to ensure they fit the goals within an SMS confine.

As for safety promotion, Jet Linx director of safety Sheryl Clarke explained this should involve a safety culture that is deeply ingrained and automatic, she said. Without a strong safety culture, the other three pillars will not matter.

She stressed—and this was a sentiment echoed by others in the class—that simply buying an SMS software program, creating a few posters, conducting an hour-long seminar, and then placing the program on a shelf will not work. Instead, the program must not only have the buy-in of senior leadership but front-line employees (which dovetailed with the lessons learned outlined by the FAA's Carroll). Safety managers should have ties to all departments, from operations to administration. Employees must be trained and participate.

Key to this is the concept of just culture. Employees must feel safe in their jobs to participate, particularly in reporting, without reprisal. In fact, this participation is so important that Smith outlined a “quantum safety metrics” formula that enables an organization to measure its “meaningful accident prevention effort.” This is not measuring accident/incident rates, but rather how active the company is on the safety front. For instance, it can measure how many safety reports employees file over time, demonstrating employee buy-in.

But just culture goes beyond reporting. It goes to how employees feel in their jobs and parlays into human factors. Do they feel secure enough to make decisions that are in the best interest of safety?

“It is impossible to punish your way into a good safety culture,” Smith said. “It’s impossible to punish your way out of human errors.”

Expanding on that was Dan McCune, associate v-p of safety at Embry-Riddle (incidentally, Smith and Kosbab are on the board of the International Society of Safety Professionals, while McCune is on the organization’s board of advisors). He noted that “everything revolves around safety culture” at Embry-Riddle. He characterized this culture as “doing the right thing when no one is looking.”

In human factors, he continued, errors have a reason, whether skill-, rule-, or knowledge-based. Nothing happens in a vacuum and rather than punishment, organizations need to root out those underlying reasons to correct them.

Participants who registered through NATA were given the opportunity to obtain Air Transport Safety Manager (ATSM) certification. We were handed a study guide that reinforced the lessons through the week. Near the end of the week, we took the exam to further reinforce the concepts.

The nascent ATSM certification likely will evolve over time, Smith said, with possible continuing education components and other requirements. But for now, I’ve met the minimum requirements and count myself among the early certification holders.

Important, however, were the practical applications of the course that I brought back with me. While AIN is not an operator nor an MRO, safety is a principle that guides throughout any organization. We were asked to accomplish BowTies on our organization and I immediately thought of a few ideas ranging from libel to international travel.

Taking it a step forward, I did find the quality assurance piece, involving data collection, a little more difficult. That’s where instructors and fellow students jumped in offering ideas; maybe look at quantifying work-related health incidents, one suggested.

I learned that the class wasn’t simply a high-level overview of SMS, but a how-to course where instructors want to give participants resources and tools so they can effect a positive safety culture, fully implement SMS, and be ready for the FAA.

Other sessions are planned for April 12-16 and July 12-16.