How Safety Management Systems Can Make Aviation Safer

Commercial aviation already has a safety record of which every other mode of public transport would be vastly proud.

In a discussion I had earlier this week on the findings of the recently published 2016 edition of the annual ICAO Safety Report with a senior executive of the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF), the executive – FSF’s VP Technical, Mark Millam – introduced the topic of safety management systems into our conversation.

Commercial aviation already has a safety record of which every other mode of public transport would be vastly proud. In both 2014 and 2015, according to the past two annual editions of the annual ICAO Safety Report, events which probably or certainly stemmed from intentional acts resulted in more fatalities in crashes of commercial aircraft with certificated maximum take-off weights of more than 5,700kg (12,566lb) than did accidents.

Meanwhile, the rate of accidents – fatal and non-fatal alike – in 2015 involving scheduled operations of such aircraft decreased 7 per cent from 2014, from 3.0 to 2.8 accidents per million departures. In all likelihood this was the lowest annual accident rate ever for commercial aviation.

ICAO’s tallies of commercial-aircraft accidents each year over the past four years suggests that some “plateauing” of the accident rate might be happening, Millam suggests. This is because, ever since a notable drop in total accident numbers from 125 in 2011 to 99 in 2012, the numbers of accidents in the following three years has stayed largely static: 90 in 2013, 97 in 2014 and 92 in 2015 (though in both 2014 and 2014, two events listed as accidents by ICAO may have been or were intentional acts).

However, the numbers of scheduled and unscheduled flights of commercial aircraft continue to increase each year, so the plateauing in safety performance suggested by Millam may be slightly illusory in that each year greater numbers of flights are basically producing a standstill in the total numbers of accidents.

Nevertheless, under its Global Safety Information Project (GSIP, which Millam manages), part of FSF’s mandate is to work closely with the FAA “to understand the world of aviation safety information, how it is collected, analysed and exchanged” – and how the collection, dissemination and analysis of safety data can be improved to reduce accident rates for all types of aviation.

According to Millam, a key tool in attempting to achieve this goal has been the mandating and structural description by ICAO, in Annex 19 to the Chicago Convention, of safety management systems (SMSs), which all aviation product and service providers must adopt.

Providers which must adopt SMSs include not only aircraft operators, manufacturers, airports/aerodromes and maintenance companies, but also the many types of company which perform functions in and around an aircraft when it is on the ground. Such providers include aircraft fuellers, caterers, baggage-handlers and other aviation ground-handling companies.

SMSs are of key importance because they work in four ways to manage aviation safety and its improvement. First they establish organisational structures by which aviation organisations can establish safety policies and accountability – including creating formal safety management-oversight roles and appointing qualified, experienced personnel to fill them.

Second, SMSs formalise the management of safety risks by providing procedures and processes for identifying potential and actual hazards, assessing safety risks and then mitigating them. Mitigation is performed by reporting of safety risks and taking active or passive measures to reduce each risk to a reasonable level and potentially removing risks entirely.

The third role of SMSs is to provide assurance that safety is being maintained. Each aviation organisation’s SMS does this by establishing benchmarks of safety measurement and monitoring the organisation’s safety performance to ensure its safety performance continues to meet these benchmarks.

If its safety performance doesn’t continue to meet the organisation’s established benchmarks, then previously established formal procedures are put into effect to bring the organisation’s safety performance back up to the required standards.

Also inherent within each SMS’s safety-assurance role are mechanisms to provide management of change – changes in an organisation’s safety circumstances may occur in a wide variety of ways – and also pathways to allow continuous improvement of the SMS.

Last but not least, every aviation organisation’s SMS should provide for the promotion of safety throughout every level of the organisation. It does so by establishing safety training and education programmes for the organisation’s employees and its mandate includes re-training of staff where necessary following a safety-related incident, or delays in finding and identifying a serious safety hazard. Safety communication – by means of classes, posters, videos, newsletters, signs, social media channels and other forms of communication – represents an integral part of the SMS’s safety-promotion function.

As the FAA notes in its online SMS briefing materials, an SMS provides both to a certificate holder (each being an aviation product or service provider) and to the FAA itself: a structured means of safety-risk management decision-making; a means of demonstrating safety-management capability before system failures occur; increased confidence in risk controls though structured safety-assurance processes; an effective interface for knowledge-sharing between regulator and certificate holder; and a safety-promotion framework to support a sound safety culture.

So, in practice, how can SMSs be useful to organisations such as FSF and the FAA in improving the flow of aviation safety information, analysing this flow better and making sure the information and analysis is disseminated as widely as possible?

According to Millam, if SMSs are structured properly and provided with the right regulatory reporting requirements, information on safety hazards, risks, benchmarks, measurements, management of change and safety promotion can be used to identify those safety risks which require the most urgent attention – and then to provide that attention.

Organisations such as the FAA and FSF “can use information from safety [management] programmes to look for the highest risks and deal with these things well before they become accidents,” says Millam. “Our programmes say we have got to be smarter in how we share that information.”

The FAA and FSF are particularly interested in identifying “precursor” risks which might not in themselves generate either any injuries or fatalities among people, nor even potentially any damage to aircraft. Nevertheless, such precursor risks and incidents can provide significant indications that aviation safety is in serious risk of being compromised.

Serious risks and incidents – such as an aircraft accidentally landing on a taxiway or pilots having to take action to avoid their aircraft colliding with another following a TCAS resolution advisory – usually require an aircraft’s pilots having to file a mandatory incident report with the operator.

Sometimes, operators have to do likewise with their regulators, but often incident reports stay within operators’ internal safety-reporting systems, according to Millam. Additionally, regulators do not always publish reports on such incidents for widespread distribution within the industry.

However, according to Millam, if information on important safety-risking precursor incidents were to be made more widely and generally available, organisations such as FSF could learn much more about the causation factors behind those risks.

Were they able to do so and then communicate their findings effectively to the aviation industry as a whole, today’s already extremely safe commercial-aviation environment could become even safer still – and the accident rate would continue to decline.

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