SMS in the Airline Industry

SMS in the Airline Industry


To continually improve on existing levels of commercial air transport safety amid industry challenges, the safety management system (SMS) became mandatory worldwide for specified airlines in March 2006. The concept evolved from guidelines, proofs of concept and prototypes pioneered by the airline industry in the early 1990s.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) urges each of the world’s airlines to fully implement a unique SMS, adhering to international standards and recommended practices.

A 2017 working paper presented by the United States to the Technical Commission of ICAO Assembly 37th Session said, “Service providers’ safety management systems, and particularly the interactions between the State Safety Program (SSP) and the network of SMSs in the State’s air transportation system, must … be considered. It is in these interactions where the oversight functions become important, so the performance of service providers [e.g., airlines] is a key target of measurements of safety performance.”

ICAO Doc 9734, Safety Oversight Manual, adds, “The characteristics of an effective State safety oversight system include ... a robust and effective approach to the management of safety, including the adoption of Safety Management Systems in the functional areas of regulation as well as in operation and service provision.”

For an airline, implementing an SMS is as important to business survival as a financial management system. A continually refined SMS enables each airline to reliably achieve one of civil aviation’s key goals: enhancing safety performance through best practice by moving beyond mere compliance with regulatory requirements.

A large volume of reports and presentations about airline SMS recount unprecedented achievements in risk management. This has influenced other segments of aviation to adopt versions of SMS. Examples include: air traffic management; aerodromes; civil aviation authorities; manufacturers; flight operations auditors and analysts; accident investigation authorities; aircraft ground handling services; aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul organisations; and general aviation organisations, such as business aircraft operators and flight training centers.

ICAO Requirements

ICAO Annex 6 — Operation of Aircraft, Part I — International Commercial Air Transport — Aeroplanes, and Part III — International Operations — Helicopters, requires States to establish a safety programme in order to achieve an acceptable level of safety in the operation of aircraft. As part of their safety programme, States require operators to implement an SMS consistent with ICAO SMS standards and guidance.

An SMS allows operators to integrate their diverse safety activities into a coherent system. Examples of safety activities that might be integrated into an operator’s SMS include:

a) Hazard and incident reporting;

b) Flight Data Analysis (FDA);

c) Line Operations Safety Audit (LOSA); and

d) Cabin Safety monitoring.

EASA Requirements

European Commission regulation, EU-OPS 1.037 “Accident prevention and flight safety programme,” requires that

(a) An operator shall establish and maintain an accident prevention and flight safety programme, which may be integrated with the quality system, including:

(1) Programmes to achieve and maintain risk awareness by all persons involved in operations; and

(2) An occurrence reporting scheme to enable the collation and assessment of relevant Incident and accident reports in order to identify adverse trends or to address deficiencies in the interests of flight safety. The scheme shall protect the identity of the reporter and include the possibility that reports may be submitted anonymously; and

(3) Evaluation of relevant information relating to incidents and accidents and the promulgation of related information, but not the attribution of blame; and

(4) A flight data monitoring programme for those aeroplanes in excess of 27 000kg MCTOM. ... The flight data monitoring programme shall be non-punitive and contain adequate safeguards to protect the source(s) of the data; and

(5) The appointment of a person accountable for managing the programme.

(b) Proposals for corrective action resulting from the accident prevention and flight safety programme shall be the responsibility of the person accountable for managing the programme.

(c) The effectiveness of changes resulting from proposals for corrective action identified by the accident and flight safety programme shall be monitored by the Quality Manager.

UK CAA Requirements

As of 2021, the SMS strategy page and the CAA Safety Plan section of the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority’s website — updating their language per the UK–EU transition — clarify the CAA’s requirement for airlines to comply with UK SMS standards. Moreover, in the safety plan, industry SMSs receive a level of government attention and importance equivalent to enhancing CAA oversight.

“Industry SMS implementation is required in most [UK] aviation sectors by law and is advocated in all others,” the website says. “Accidents occur as a result of safety management systems failing. … Industry needs appropriate guidance and support to develop effective safety management systems that will deliver an increasingly safe service. CAA needs to have the capability to assess the effectiveness of an organisation’s SMS.”

SMS requirements for airlines and corresponding CAA guidance focus on the following:

  • Industry safety culture;
  • Human factors;
  • Enhanced understanding of SMS, emphasising risk identification and management;
  • Assessment of just culture and human factors; and,
  • Common and consistent approaches to oversight of SMSs.

Effective SMS among UK airlines has become critical to safe operations, according to the CAA, which adds, “We need to be able to recognise when the system starts to become unsafe, or the risks are increasing, before an accident occurs. … Our oversight approach focuses on verifying how effective an organisation’s SMS is.”

U.S. FAA Requirements

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) website, as of 2021, defines SMS, and cites the national policy order and regulatory requirements for FAA and U.S. Part 121 air carriers to implement an SMS. Governing the FAA’s own airline-oversight practices, “SMS is the formal, top-down, organization-wide approach to managing safety risk and assuring the effectiveness of safety risk controls. It includes systematic procedures, practices, and policies for the management of safety risk.” (FAA National Policy Order 8000.369C, Safety Management System, June 24, 2020). The same definition applies to airline SMSs in the SMS Part 5 regulation, and the relationship functions as follows:

  • The FAA regards SMS as a critical element of its regulatory authority and safety oversight responsibility regarding increasingly diverse aviation product/service providers, including “airports, manufacturers, operators [e.g., air carriers in this article], maintenance organizations, training organizations, air traffic service providers, and others;” and,
  • FAA emphasises, however, that its SMS expectations for Part 121 air carriers avoid prescriptive, one-size-fits-all checklists. Instead, the agency’s guidance to these airlines says, “SMS Part 5 specifies a basic set of processes integral to an effective SMS but does not specify particular methods for implementing these processes. … This design is intentional, in that the FAA expects each air carrier to develop an SMS that works for its unique operation. … These methods, however, are not the only means of compliance.”

The basic set of processes in SMS Part 5 — the rule titled Safety Management Systems for Domestic, Flag, and Supplemental Operations Certificate Holders — focuses on these components:

  • Safety policy;
  • Safety risk management;
  • Safety assurance;
  • Safety promotion; and,
  • SMS documentation and record keeping.

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