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Above and Beyond: IS-BAO’s Plan for Continuous Improvement

IS-BAO Progressive Stage 3 helps continually reinforce effective safety culture.

Since 2002, the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) has provided a framework by which business aviation operations can facilitate safe operational practices through adherence to an effective safety management system (SMS).

Divided into three stages, with each building on the foundation of the preceding stage, the IS-BAO process has been well-received throughout the industry.

“IS-BAO Stage 3 allows for a comprehensive assessment of a flight department’s culture, and how that culture embeds these principles,” said Bennet Walsh, IS-BAO program director for the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC).

However, many flight departments that attained the highest Stage 3 certification level soon asked for additional guidance on how to maintain those practices and continue to innovate.

“About 3-4 years ago, the industry asked, ‘What’s next?’“ Walsh said. “When we talked to operators, we found that while their systems and cultures had reached maturity, there could be other, more efficient and more appropriate ways of going about this process.”

That led to the creation of the IS-BAO Progressive Stage 3 (PS3). Rather than following an all-encompassing two- or three-year audit cycle, flight operations in the PS3 undergo annual, low-impact, one-day progressive audits covering one-third of the IS-BAO curriculum each year, either live or remote. Pricing is similar to the standard IS-BAO program, amortized over a 10-year term.

“Operators meet with our Operator Review Board to tailor their audit schedule,” Walsh explained. “‘When are you less busy? When do you have a big report to your executive team coming up? Let’s leverage that energy and get your IS-BAO [audit] done at the same time. It also allows the operator to arrange the chapters they’ve identified a need to focus on for their safety goals, and then use them in their internal audit program.”

Additionally, operators have the opportunity to exchange tips and information with other operators participating in the PS3 Leadership Team and an exclusive IS-BAO safety database containing shared, de-identified data.

“From the start, we wanted to be able to share and benchmark with each other,” Walsh said. “We want the leading auditors out there to sit down with the most progressive operators to discuss the challenges that we face that are unique in business aviation.”

Most importantly, such collaboration also provides an additional opportunity for operators to identify potential failures that could lead to incidents and increased risk, and which may go undetected by even the most robust SMS.

“The auditor has the benefit of working with multiple operators, some of which may be completely different from others,” noted Mark Larsen, CAM, NBAA senior manager for safety and flight operations. “The unique approach of the PS3 can provide a lot of value, particularly on the Part 91 side. It’s not about a regulatory mandate; instead, it’s an honest conversation about meeting a higher standard and always working to find ways to perform better.”

Focusing on Continuous Improvement

Of the hundreds of Stage 3 certified operators worldwide, to date approximately 17 have adopted the PS3 since the beta program launched in 2018. Mark McIntyre, director of flight operations for Mente LLC, described the choice to participate in PS3 as a natural extension of his reasons for initially pursuing IS-BAO certification more than 15 years ago.

“Flight departments operate under different mindsets and cultures, and, to me, IS-BAO is a standard we could all aspire to and agree on,” he said. “Also – and kind of selfishly – I didn’t want our senior leadership to ever ask why we weren’t continually pursuing operational excellence. IS-BAO not only makes us better, but it also offers evidence that we’re taking our job seriously.”

“The best way to describe this process is that it encourages continuous improvement. Every year, you must prepare for and pass an audit, rather than pushing every three years and then setting it aside.”

Gary Dietz Chief Pilot for a Fortune 100 company

“We recognized the potential to become complacent once you achieve a challenge,” said Gary Dietz, a chief pilot for a Fortune 100 company that also participates in PS3. “The best way to describe this process is that it encourages continuous improvement. Every year, you must prepare for and pass an audit, rather than pushing every three years and then setting it aside.

“It’s a cultural revolution,” continued Dietz, “but you must cultivate that cultural change every year. It’s like planting a garden: you can’t plant your garden every three years and reap consistent rewards from it; you must plant it every year. PS3 maintains a continuous discussion. It keeps you focused.”

Larsen noted the importance of PS3’s emphasis on the use and sharing of both human-reported and automated safety data, which continues to be among the NBAA Safety Committee’s Top Safety Focus Areas, as well as a point of emphasis from the NTSB, which continues to strive to improve the industry’s excellent safety record.

“A fully-functional SMS must account for all the areas of risk and then bring them into the fold to mitigate,” said Larsen. “That includes narrative safety reports, FOQA [Flight Operations Quality Assurance] and data-monitoring programs. Unfortunately, we still see operators falling short in heeding those lessons and issuing mitigations for those risks.

“IS-BAO, and PS3 in particular, helps the operator identify the performance safety indicators that are working, and those that are in need of improvement,” Larsen continued. “It helps drive a full feedback loop in that process.”

Benefits of Yearly Audits

At first, the idea of annual audits may perhaps seem burdensome when compared to a three-year schedule. However, McIntyre said members of his flight department eagerly agreed to participate in PS3.

“We all agreed that having audits of reduced scope, but more frequently, was the preferred option over having to gear up for a major audit every three years,” said McIntyre. “I believe a flight department’s engagement on enhancing and improving its SMS may lose a bit of urgency if you only look at your company’s safety risks every three years. We look at PS3 as performing a mini-audit every year that provides the urgency and incentive to really keep us more engaged in IS-BAO and our overall SMS.”

Dietz also noted “minimal pushback” from his team in switching to PS3. “Our leadership has a consistent message and is transparent about their expectations and their end goal. At the same time, they’re open to accepting feedback along the way, which is a mark of true, continuous improvement.”

Again pointing to PS3 as a cultural shift, Dietz also acknowledged that wasn’t necessarily how it used to be.

“Fourteen years ago or so, there was a resistance to change,” noted Dietz. “How do you convince a pilot who’s been here 20 years that you can make them safer? In the end, however, we all recognize that safety must be our number one, guiding principle. Programs may come and go, but that principle remains.”

Similarly, McIntyre acknowledged the choice to participate in PS3 “is an individual decision,” and that the standard audit schedule may still work best for some operations.

“Participating at the progressive Stage 3 level, however, I think demonstrates something of a memorandum of undertaking to participate in the industry at every level,” McIntyre added.

IBAC’s Walsh described PS3 as “an actual living process, a relationship not only with the IS-BAO program, but with its constituent group in a way that’s never happened before. It brings business aviation out of the silos they’ve always been in,” he concluded, “and opens up our community in an entirely new and exciting way.”

Review NBAA’s IS-BAO resources at nbaa.org/is-bao.

IS-BAO Stages

The International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) auditing process concentrates on Safety Management System (SMS) development through a gradual process of advancing maturity:

Stage 1


Confirms that the SMS infrastructure is established and that safety management activities are appropriately targeted

Stage 2


Ensures that safety risks are being effectively managed

Stage 3


Verifies that safety management activities are fully integrated into the operator’s business and that a positive safety culture is being sustained

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