FAA Says Airline SMS Mandate Will Not Affect Suppliers

FAA’s mandate requiring airlines to develop safety management systems may affect MRO shops, but agency says impact will be minimal.

The FAA’s long-awaited mandate requiring airlines to develop safety management systems (SMS) includes few surprises, as many carriers covered by the rule are well on the way to compliance thanks to an extensive pilot program. Despite its limitation to Part 121 (scheduled) airlines, the rule’s ramifications will be felt by some that serve carriers, including maintenance, repair, and overhaul shops, though the agency emphasizes that fears of so-called mandate via “flow-down” are unfounded.

During the comment period, several entities—including the Aviation Suppliers Association (ASA), and the Modification and Replacement Parts Association—expressed concern that carriers would extend SMS requirements to contractors as part of their own efforts to comply. An example: asking contractors to provide data that flows into a carrier’s dataset included in its approved plan.

The FAA moved to quell the fears, emphasizing work-arounds that can meet a carrier’s goal without passing requirements down the supply chain.

“This rule does not require the air carrier to require SMSs on the part of contractors, code-share partners, or other business affiliates,” the agency emphasized in the final rule’s preamble. “This rule permits the use of contractors as a data source, but will not mandate this requirement. Associated policy and advisory documents will not specify or imply these requirements as conditions of acceptance.”

The FAA explained that the airline “may include SMS in its negotiated business arrangements, consistent with the common practice in industry where air carriers require registration under such programs as” AS 9100.

The rule, published in early January, requires Part 121 operators to develop an SMS plan and submit it to the FAA for approval by Sept. 9. The plan must include a timeline that ensures the SMS has been implemented by March 9, 2018, or three years after the rule’s effective date. 

For most operators, notably large ones, creating an SMS is largely an exercise in leveraging existing internal programs. Nearly 50 airlines participate in FAA’s Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing program, using flight data monitoring (FDM) tools like Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) and voluntary employee reporting efforts like Aviation Safety Action Program. Such tools form SMS’s foundation.

Smaller operators must replicate the functions of FDM and ASAP to create approved SMS programs. FAA’s final rule and related guidance offers what the agency considers flexible approaches that scale SMS to match an operator’s need. For instance, while FDM is a required SMS element, the agency does not mandate FOQA to meet the need, and the agency emphasized that “the rule does not specifically require automated information technology systems.”

ASA expressed concern that the SMS rule would create a new, general section—Part 5—that defines SMS. ASA argued that since more SMS rules are on the way—FAA is developing one for airports, and pilot programs for repair stations and manufacturers are up and running—the definition of each program should be added as subparts within existing rules, not as a stand-alone part that could apply to everyone. 

The FAA opted to keep the new Part 5 in the final rule, arguing that its general standards can be integrated into specific SMS mandates “with only minor modifications,” and adding that expanding Part 5 to other certificate holders won’t be done without a proper rulemaking. 


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