FAA Administrator Steve Dickson says a proposal that would mandate safety management systems (SMS) will be coming soon for Part 135 and Part 145 certificate holders, as well as certain air tour operators. What might that regulation look like, and how can charter operators, repair stations and other affected entities prepare for this new requirement?
The FAA established the SMS requirements for Part 121 operators (14 CFR Part 5 ) in 2015. The regulation allowed just over three years for the airlines to develop and implement acceptable SMS programs. Will Part 5’s applicability statement simply be modified to include Parts 135 and 145, as well as air tour operators, or will the regulatory change be more encompassing?
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Doug Carr, NBAA’s senior vice president of safety, security, sustainability and international operations, says Part 5 is not the right answer for many Part 135 or 145 certificate holders.
“Current FAA SMS tools just don’t fit the broader aviation community,” said Carr. “FAR Part 5 and the FAA’s Voluntary SMS program (SMS VP) absolutely won’t work for small operators. We need a smarter solution that gives industry a stake in developing effective, scalable SMS programs.
“Any new SMS mandate for these operators and repair stations needs to be a scalable solution for everyone, from a single-aircraft, single-pilot operation delivering mail in Alaska to a large fleet with international operations or an off-airport single-person repair station,” he added.
Carr is urging the FAA to talk with the industry before publishing a proposed rule to ensure that the agency fully understands the current operational climate and properly considers the breadth of the industry.
“If the FAA is using ideas that were discussed over 10 years ago as a basis for this current effort, I fear we’ll end up with a proposal that we’ll have to fight rather than support,” Carr explained, referring to the 2020 Pilot Records Database final rule based on industry recommendations from 2009. “Part 5 isn’t scalable. More importantly, it doesn’t recognize the diversity of the industry. It simply can’t work en masse.”
“Basic concepts of SMS are positive improvements to safety culture, even if they’re scaled to different operators.”
Steve Dickson FAA Administrator
Nevertheless, regulators and industry stakeholders alike recognize the value of SMS, and Dickson has commended NBAA members for adopting such voluntary programs and participating in safety data gathering initiatives.
At a recent NBAA Town Hall, the FAA administrator specifically addressed the upcoming SMS mandate, seeming to recognize the need for scalability when applying SMS requirements to business aviation. He also said there will be opportunity for dialogue with industry as the FAA shapes the rule.
“Basic concepts of SMS are positive improvements to safety culture, even if they’re scaled to different operators,” said Dickson.
Dickson also said that any SMS must be a living document. He pointed to a 2020 Sikorsky S-76B accident, which the NTSB recently determined was caused by VFR flight into IMC, spatial disorientation and loss of control. The operator involved had an SMS in place, but it “wasn’t a way of life” and wasn’t “ingrained” in the safety culture. According to Dickson, one former employee called the SMS “window dressing.”
“Open your mind to the concepts of SMS and to the possibility that those concepts could improve your organization.”
W. Ashley Smith, Jr. President, Jet Logistics Inc.
From Mindset to Implementation
As the industry gears up for the new rule, W. Ashley Smith, Jr., president of Jet Logistics Inc., an air medical company that has achieved IS-BAO Stage 3 status, says operators should approach the SMS process with the right attitude.
“Open your mind to the concepts of SMS and to the possibility that those concepts could improve your organization,” Smith urged.
Smith suggests operators look to voluntary programs such as the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) for tips on implementing an SMS. He said that when his company first embraced IS-BAO, he found the process mostly just formalized what the company already did. “Now it is so ingrained in how we operate, it has evolved to be a quality control tool,” said Smith.
In fact, Smith credits a fully functioning SMS with making his company more efficient and effective.
“Implementing an SMS won’t materially change how you do business, but it will improve your efficiency. It’s a better way to do what you’re already doing. If you really embrace SMS, it will make your organization significantly better than it is today.”
Smith provided a hypothetical example of an operator noticing pilots regularly exceeding the 14-hour duty day limitation because of customs delays. The occurrences are documented through the SMS process, including an explanation for why the overage occurred. This enables the company to identify trends and explain the overage to the FAA. If the problem continues, why? Should the operator use a different airport? Should the pilots do something differently?
Use Good Data
Another concept that operators need to keep in mind is that an SMS really runs on quality data. Tracking and trending data, such as Smith’s example of duty-day overages, helps organizations use their SMS to improve safety and efficiency.
“We can’t improve safety in an SMS if we are tracking and analyzing junk data metrics,” asserted Amanda Ferraro, CEO of Aviation Safety Solutions, LLC. “The data that operators collect should be meaningful and help answer the question of ‘Where is the next accident coming from?’”
Ferraro continued, “Tracking how many times we are logging into safety software is an example of junk data for answering the question of ‘Where is my next accident coming from?’ If we use an SMS to track quality data and analyze it appropriately, it will help answer that question.”
Examples of quality data metrics include items related to accountability for tool control, unstabilized approaches, long landings, TCAS resolution advisory events and maintenance vendor errors.
In addition to collecting meaningful data, operators need to analyze the data closely and implement hazard mitigations based on the results.
“SMS generates a lot of data, but it’s worthless if you don’t do something with the data,” Smith declared. “If you don’t use the data, it’s a wasted opportunity.”
On a day-to-day basis, Smith finds particular value in the use of a flight risk assessment tool, which gives his pilots an objective standard by which to make go/no-go decisions or, in some cases, an opportunity to reasonably mitigate risk without making the pilot the “bad guy” to passengers when a flight is delayed or canceled.
Having an SMS evaluated through a voluntary industry audit program might not ensure compliance with Part 5, if that’s the direction the FAA decides to go, so Ferraro suggests operators with an existing SMS look at the FAA’s voluntary program, which includes a gap analysis tool. Operators should complete the gap assessment to determine what steps might be needed to fully comply with Part 5.
Although some differences between IS-BAO, for example, and Part 5 might seem to be simple semantics, there are some process differences. Ferraro estimates that an operator with IS-BAO accreditation is 75% of the way to complying with Part 5.
Common areas of concern, in Ferraro’s experience, include inconsistent application of safety management principles and SMS processes that are only partially implemented.
Not Just for Flight Operations
Some organizations focus their SMS efforts on flight operations, but maintenance and other functions of a company must be in sync with the SMS processes, too, Ferraro added.
Other companies allow their SMS to become stale, completing a risk profile, for example, then letting the document sit on a shelf for years without using it as a tool to proactively identify new risks.
Ferraro urges operators and others that might be subject to a future SMS rulemaking to start planning now, whether they already have an SMS in place or are just starting to consider one.
“Don’t wait for a mandate,” said Ferraro. “It takes several years to fully implement an SMS.”