American’s Approach to SMS With US Airways Merger

Merged American Airlines and US Airways puts renewed focus on enhancing risk and safety-management systems.

Callie Choat, managing director safety assurance & environmental programs at American Airlines, directs the company’s safety assurance programs, which include internal evaluation, code-share surveillance, and Safety Management Systems, hazardous materials/dangerous goods and environmental and sustainability programs. She previously held positions at US Airways as director of safety assurance environmental programs and director of systems operation control. In February, Contributing Editor Heather Baldwin spoke with Choat from her Dallas office about safety risk-management at the new American.


AW&ST: What are American’s core safety risk-management

Choat: Our methodologies for managing risk are in line with SMS: Identify the hazard, assess the risk, analyze the risk and mitigate the risk. Our principles are about fostering communications between departments and eliminating the silos. We share information across all the departments and make sure each department has the time and ability, using our safety risk-management principles, to assess how a change will affect them.


How do these principles differ from the ones used prior to the integration of the airlines?

On the whole, they are no different. Everyone has always had risk-management processes in place even before SMS was standard. Working with the FAA, we spent a lot of time harmonizing safety management across all Part 121 carriers, so the programs were pretty similar. One of the big differences is that we took it a little further than the FAA SMS pilot project. We expanded the scope to include security, which wasn’t required by SMS. We also expanded our scope to include hazardous materials and environmental compliance. We wanted to look at our operation as a whole and ensure that everything we do to get the planes in the sky is the safest it can possibly be.


How did you go about merging the safety risk-management efforts of American and US Airways?

We already had been sharing a lot of information as part of industry efforts to continue improving safety. Where there were differences, we looked at how they did it, how we did it, and we blended the two approaches using best practices. One of the key differences we discovered was that the US Airways risk matrix was more focused on operational considerations, not on dollars: How did a change impact customers and the operation? On the American side, there were dollars associated with levels of risk. American also looked at branding, evaluating how a change impacted its brand or name. 

By sitting down and putting it together, we wound up removing the dollars portion from the risk matrix because safety isn’t about dollars; it’s about the impact of a change. We then expanded the risk matrix to blend other elements so that now we look at how a change affects the aircraft, the employee, the customer, the brand, security, environmental, systems and processes. We go beyond what is incorporated into SMS guidance to look at the risk to the company.


Can you speak specifically to how risk management is applied in your maintenance operation?

It is no different from the operational side. We are trying to bring together two legacy carriers with different policies and practices. Regardless of whether it is operations, customer service or maintenance, our biggest risk is how we manage change. However, one piece of Part 5 that isn’t defined is how we manage risk with our vendors. The way we are approaching that is to educate them on SMS, promote safety reporting, plus we use our safety-assurance principles that include auditing and reporting to ensure they run a safe operation.


What tools are you using to manage risk throughout the company?

As part of our risk-management processes, we have several items in our toolkit. One is our risk matrix with levels of severity and assessment of risk. We also use several risk worksheets, an event risk-classification sheet for reactive events, and a risk-management worksheet for proactive, predictive changes.

One of the most important parts of risk management is system and task analysis or system description. What am I doing today? What am I doing tomorrow? Am I enhancing controls and reducing risk? On the proactive side, we look at: How is what I am doing today going to affect me tomorrow? We also have a reactive element: Why did that occur? A reactive risk assessment, based on the event as it occurred, helps the organization to understand the effectiveness of our risk controls and the remaining safety margin that exists between the event as it occurred and the credible escalated outcome. 

We manage all of this through formal standardized data analysis groups and standards boards for each operational area. Currently, we are centralizing all our tools onto one SMS platform. The tool incorporates all risk assessments and documentation.


How would you characterize the role safety risk-management is playing at the new American versus at the individual carriers before integration?

Today, we have robust risk management at every level of the organization. We have done more than 1,700 risk assessments and trained more than 650 people to do risk management. Before, there were people trained at both airlines but it was a much smaller group. At US Airways, we had about 20 people trained to facilitate risk assessments across all organizations. American had about 40 people. So we have really been able to expand the scope.

One of the boards we put together for the merger is the Single Operating Certificate Safety Review Board, the SSRB, which includes all our principles. Every change that introduces a hazard comes through this board and they read every single safety risk assessment. It is a final QA look at a change to ensure that yes, we have identified the risk and planned for it. If a change doesn’t introduce any hazards, it goes through the operational standards boards with a final QA by corporate SMS level, which includes a manager and two specialists who review it to assure the assessment is accurate.


What have been your greatest challenges so far?

People were having trouble differentiating between a hazard and a risk. There is an industry-wide definition of hazard, but American’s is broader: It’s anything that could cause injury, death, damage, disruption, regulatory deviation or harm to the business or brand. A hazard could be less than an accident to an aircraft but could still affect the employee, the customer or how we do business. We had to really communicate that across the organization.

Going forward, our greatest challenge is continuing to embed the foundation and principles of SMS into every fiber of this company so that our 100,000 employees know how they contribute and what their role is in SMS. People think: 1,700 risk assessments and we’re done. But we aren’t. We want to be an industry leader in promoting SMS and looking for new and better ways to report information. We want to keep developing the risk index at individual departments to continue improving the overall health of the company. We feel so good about where we are with SMS, but we aren’t done. It is something we will continue to do and continue to promote throughout the operation. 

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