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Third-Party Audits Validate Safety Processes

Independent assessments are needed to confirm the effectiveness of any safety system.

Nearly all business aircraft operators have some kind of safety program in place. Most would undoubtedly assert that their program is effective in reducing the risk of accidents or incidents. Without third-party safety auditing, however, those operations may lack valuable independent oversight.

One of the most recognized safety auditing programs is the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO), established in 2002 by the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC). IS-BAO is a three-stage program that begins with implementation of an effective safety management system (SMS).

Subsequent IS-BAO stages further mature the flight operation’s safety program and help develop a positive safety culture. In 2020, IBAC instituted the Progressive Stage 3 program for qualified flight operations to retain IS-BAO certification through a series of one-day progressive audits, instead of a single audit once every three years.

“IS-BAO is a continuous process to improve an organization’s commitment to safety,” said Andrew Karas, IBAC’s program manager for IS-BAO. “It’s about building a culture of continuous improvement in a dynamic industry that continuously strives for excellence.”

IS-BAO relies on independent third-party auditors, accredited by IBAC, to assess compliance at participating flight operations.

“Organizations may become lax in their procedures and processes without that extra pair of eyes,” said Amanda Ferraro, CEO of Aviation Safety Solutions and an IS-BAO auditor and trainer. “Their safety practices may be very much out of date if they haven’t undergone an audit recently.”

Participation in IS-BAO and other safety auditing programs can represent a significant investment, both financially and in terms of the time needed to complete validation. That may lead to some reluctance on the part of aviation managers to propose such programs to their company’s management team.

“Flight operations want to achieve the highest standards, and whether you’re a small operator or a Fortune 500 company, an operator cannot afford to have an accident,” Ferraro said. “Even though the short-term investment is substantial, in my opinion, the adoption of a safety auditing program is the cheapest insurance policy you can buy.”

Similar concerns drove Mark McIntyre, director of flight operations for Mente LLC, to implement IS-BAO in 2005.

“I didn’t want our clients to ask, ‘You say that you’re safe, but is that your opinion, or do you have a metric?’“ he said. “To have independent verification that we meet what is essentially a universally recognized standard gave us confidence to have those conversations.”

Fresh Perspective Avoids Confirmation Bias

Aviation managers may also be reluctant to invite a critical eye to review their existing safety practices.

“We are all subject to confirmation bias,” McIntyre said. “We don’t want to admit that our operation could be unsafe in any way, so we’re going to look for things that support our supposition. And the flip side of that is that we’ll probably exclude things that suggest we’re not doing things well or safely.”

IS-BAO is structured to take aviation personnel methodically through the steps to develop an effective SMS and apply other safety-minded practices throughout their operation. That process often takes several months before the audit takes place.

“Safety audits are completely consistent with all the other things we do in aviation,” McIntyre said. “We don’t operate airplanes from memory; we have checklists to help us trap errors to ensure we don’t allow that chain of errors to accumulate to the point where it results in an accident or incident.”

“An audit should be a motivational experience for the operator and their team,” Ferraro added. “A lot of the work has already been done by the time the audit takes place, so it serves as important validation of what they’ve already been doing on a regular basis.”

With the initial audit successfully completed, most flight operations approach subsequent reviews as welcome opportunities to further demonstrate their commitment to safety.

“Audits motivate them to continue to strive to be better through any recommendations that come out,” said Ferraro. “They should feel like they’re doing the right thing and they’re ready for the next level.”

PHOTO © Williamson Images

One Size Does Not Fit All

Some aircraft operators may incorrectly believe that safety programs are intended exclusively for larger operations.

“You may not need a full-blown audit to be effective,” McIntyre said. “There’s a sense that a safety audit must be one-size-fits-all, but above all it should be very focused and relevant to your operation. There may be several things you’re clearly doing well.”

Karas emphasized that IS-BAO is a scalable program that can be tailored to operations large and small, private or commercial. “IS-BAO is always adapting as the industry changes,” he said. “We’re here to work with you, as well as the auditors, on developing your program.”

The ability to ‘right size’ a safety audit should be another motivator for company executives to buy in to the process.

“All public companies I know of have audit committees to audit the financials of the organization,” McIntyre said. “Aren’t safety audits just as important for the flight operation? Safety should be at the top of the list of priorities.”

Use of a third-party audit program also complements other company wide efforts to demonstrate competence and commitment to best business practices.

“Not only is the flight operation making their procedures and processes and departments better, but over the years their culture is also growing,” Ferraro said.

“Research has shown that the safest teams are also the most highly engaged teams, and IS-BAO provides a mechanism for operators to engage their team in that process,” she concluded.

“Even if I’m an executive who doesn’t know anything about airplanes, this is the surefire way to make sure my airplanes achieve the best standards in our industry. Implementing a third-party safety audit program should be a very easy decision at the C-suite level.”


Learn more about safety at nbaa.org/safety

SMS Regulations Looming for Part 135 Operators

FAA regulations (14 CFR Part 5) already require Part 121 airlines to implement safety management systems (SMS), and the FAA is expected to extend similar requirements to Part 135 operators in the near future. That adds further impetus for companies to implement a safety auditing program if they haven’t already done so.

While the industry supports SMS as an important aspect of improving safety, NBAA Director, Safety and Flight Operations Mark Larsen noted that shouldn’t mean forced application of Part 5 upon business aviation.

“We are working with the agency to develop a solution that makes sense for business aviation,” he said. “IS-BAO has served this role for two decades, and many participating operators already have processes in place that go beyond
Part 5 requirements.”

IBAC’s Andrew Karas agrees. “We’re addressing industry concerns about regulatory pressure to mandate safety management systems with the FAA and working to educate them on the IS-BAO program,” he said. That includes analysis of the areas where IS-BAO and Part 5 requirements differ.

“We showed them where the gaps are and how we could best fill the gaps,” Karas said. “Hopefully, we can come to a logical conclusion that whatever rulemaking comes down, IS-BAO is recognized as a good potential representation to accommodate that requirement.”

Larsen further noted that Part 5 was written with Part 121 flight operations in mind, and some of those requirements may be too intensive – and even unworkable – for smaller Part 135 operators and Part 145 repair stations. Extension of Part 5 to business aviation would also require the FAA to verify compliance at hundreds of individual aircraft operators and maintenance facilities.

“We feel there’s a lot of value in third-party programs like IS-BAO that fulfill the FAA’s intent without causing further burden to the agency,” Larsen said.

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