Aviation Safety Management System

Discover the key components and benefits of implementing an effective aviation safety management system to ensure safe and efficient flight operations.

What is an Aviation Safety Management System?

An Aviation Safety Management System (SMS) is a systematic approach to managing safety in aviation operations. It involves a set of principles, processes, and measures to prevent accidents, injuries, and other consequences of bad safety practices. The concept of aviation safety management systems is clearly defined in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Doc 9859 or Safety Management Manual (SMM).

Importance and Benefits of Implementing Aviation SMS

Responsible for regulating and overseeing civil aviation within the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) emphasizes that SMS will not require a separate safety department because it focuses on functional expectations by operational departments.

Moreover, the FAA Safety Management System will not require a Quality Management System (QMS), but if the organization already has one, it should align with the SMS. This can also be used with an HSE management system.

That being said, here’s why safety management systems are vital in aviation:

  • Enhanced Safety Culture: A well-implemented SMS fosters a strong safety culture as a core value across all levels of operation.
  • Proactive Hazard Identification: SMS aims to predict and mitigate potential safety issues before they escalate into major problems.
  • Improved Incident Reporting and Analysis: SMS provides a structured framework for incident reporting and analysis, allowing for easy identification of trends, root causes, and recurring issues.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Aviation authorities worldwide mandate SMS as a requirement for organizations operating in aviation. Compliance with SMS regulations, such as those set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), ensures a systematic, proactive, and data-driven approach to safety management.

Example of Safety Management Systems in Aviation

Adapted from a presentation delivered by the 14th Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the following is a practical example of how a safety management system works in the aviation industry—specifically, the safety risk management component:

Hazard Identification and Analysis

System Analysis for Design and Context: Suppose flight operations are being planned at the Hilton Head Airport (HXD). Along the east coast of the United States, HXD is 19 feet above mean sea level, and there is open water immediately at the northeast of the airport. Consider the physical environment of HXD for anything that might affect the safety of arrivals and departures into and out of the airport. Most notably, there are numerous trees mentioned in the departure procedures for this particular airport.

Conducted under 14 CFR Part 91 for transporting company executives to business activities, flight operations are being carried out via medium turbine airplanes with professional aircrews. The only runway is 4,300 feet long, which is adequate for the intended aircraft to be used but is possibly marginal for flight operations with heavy weights, at night, or in low Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) conditions.

HXD has an air control tower but is only operational during daytime and early evening hours (7:00 AM to 9:00 PM – Local Time). During night flight operations, pilot-controlled lighting is available. For IFR operations, the airport only has non-precision approaches—none use intermediate step downs, and none have vertical guidance. Even the most accurate of these approaches, Distance Measuring Equipment (DME), requires radar to initiate the approach.

Hazard Identification for Gathering Facts: From analyzing the system, operations, and environment, two potential hazards can be identified:

  1. the lack of precision approach facilities; and
  2. the lack of an operational air control tower at night.

Every conceivable hazard may not be attended to, but due diligence should be exercised by the company to address rationally foreseeable hazards. The SMS framework lays out a method of documenting and tracking hazards and actions taken.

On the surface, neither of these hazards represents an immediate no-go. While pilots may say that the airport has relatively good facilities for an experienced crew, safety risks should be as low as reasonably practical for routine operations.

Moreover, although flight operations into non-towered airports using non-precision approaches can be performed normally, an analysis by the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) revealed that these two conditions are among the highest risk factors for approach and landing accidents.

Risk Assessment and Control

Risk Analysis for Making Sense of the Data: As a part of the risk acceptance process, the aviation service provider designed a matrix to evaluate the overall risk and clarified the levels of management with the authority to accept risk. While not in the highest likelihood category, the potential severity of an approach and landing accident places the risk at a higher level.

Risk Assessment for Decision-making: Given the hazardous conditions of limited control tower operations and unavailable precision approaches, the risk of approach and landing accidents at night or in low instrument meteorological conditions is unacceptably high.

Risk Control for Action Problem Resolution: Revisiting the hazards and determining exactly what constitutes the safety risk helps in developing risk controls. In HXD flight operations, safety risk controls may involve:

  • eliminating or mitigating either or both hazardous conditions;
  • altering the operation itself; or
  • equipping people to be better at coping with these hazardous conditions.

Consider alternative destinations as a mitigation strategy, such as the Savannah International Airport (SAV), with a precision approach and operational tower facilities.

Upon reassessing the risk under the new conditions with controls in place, it is critical to document the outcome using a hazard tracking system, monitor the performance and effectiveness of risk controls, and communicate with the employees involved in the operations.

Eligio Rempillo
Article by
Eligio Rempillo
SafetyCulture Content Specialist
Eligio Rempillo is a content writer and researcher for SafetyCulture. With experience in working with clients various industries including animal care products, food, technology, and personal protective equipment for industrial uses, he is committed to advocating workplace safety and keep your business with up-to-date technologies for a better way of working.