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Scaling SMS to Meet Your Operation’s Needs

The recently issued FAA notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that would require most business aviation operators to implement a safety management system (SMS) highlights the importance of scaling an SMS to the size and specific needs of your operation.

“Your SMS must be manageably handled by the size of your staff,” said Jeff Deitz, director of flight operations for a Tennessee-based company. “If it’s too much work and takes too much effort, it will not be very effective.”

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) codified its requirements for SMS under Annex 19 in 2013, mandating SMS programs for all international commercial operators, maintenance organizations, aircraft design and manufacturing companies, and certified airport operators.

Two years later, the FAA adopted 14 CFR Part 5 governing SMS requirements for Part 121 commercial air carriers, but leaving other industry segments, including business aviation operators, to develop SMS programs voluntarily. This conflicted with Annex 19 requirements for operators flying internationally.

The FAA NPRM addresses this disparity, while also calling on Part 91.147 air tour operators and certain Part 21 Type Certificate (TC) and Production Certificate (PC) holders to develop their own SMS programs.

“Developing an SMS can certainly be a daunting process. What works for one operation may not be appropriate for another.”

Mike McCullough Assistant Director of Operations for Aviation Resource Management, Inc. and Chair of NBAA Domestic Operations Committee Part 135 Subcommittee

One Size Does Not Fit All

However, many business aviation stakeholders have expressed concern over the FAA’s approach in adapting SMS frameworks developed for Part 121 commercial airlines to the unique needs of business aviation operators.

“Developing an SMS can certainly be a daunting process,” said Mike McCullough, assistant director of operations for Aviation Resource Management, Inc. and chair of the NBAA Domestic Operations Committee Part 135 Subcommittee. “What works for one operation may not be appropriate for another.”

McCullough emphasized that all SMS is built around four pillars defined by the FAA’s SMS Advisory Circular (AC 120-92B): safety policy, safety risk management, safety assurance and safety promotion.

While those pillars provide a valuable framework, “there certainly are elements that a large flight department may incorporate into their SMS that aren’t necessarily beneficial or cost-effective for a smaller operator,” he continued.

Andrew Karas, program director for the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) – a recommended code of best practices for the industry, which has SMS at its core – at the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC), termed development of SMS, “a very personal process.

“The organization owns how they implement SMS and conform to their requirements,” he added. “Operators must conform to the basic framework, but there is also the opportunity to innovate.”

“The essential requirements of SMS set the direction for flight departments,” noted Stephane De Wolf, IS-BAO Operations Specialist for IBAC. “The end user must determine how to translate those requirements to their operation.

“Among other things, Part 5 expects an organization’s SMS to describe its operations to become more ‘situationally aware’ and comprehensively identify operational hazards and risks. Organizations are also expected to keep that system description up-to-date when their risk landscape changes, and ideally update their description ahead of a change.”

For example, “emergency response planning may be vastly different, depending on the organization’s resources,” said De Wolf. “Company manuals and recordkeeping processes will also scale to the budget and expertise available.”

Similarly, a large-scale maintenance operation may have sophisticated tool-control processes in place, “whereas a small operator with just one mechanic may use a clipboard with a list of tools and a grease pencil,” Karas said. “Each solution works for those specific operations.

“At the same time, regulators may have difficulty understanding what a small – or even very small – organization is capable of doing, and how to adjust and adapt the framework so that it can work for everybody,” he added.

While not part of the specified SMS framework, many flight operations have implemented FOQA (flight operations quality assurance) to gather data on flight parameters to better inform their SMS.

“We build up [our flight operation] as needed and scale it back as needed,” McCullough said. “Data tracking systems were prohibitively expensive back when we ran half a dozen aircraft; now, the prices are more reasonable, but our fleet size is smaller. We’re constantly evaluating the cost/benefit.”

“An SMS is about the outcome of your performance.”

Andrew Karas IS-BAO Program Director

Adapting to Fit the Mission

While their needs may differ, smaller operations can gain insight from larger companies. “We didn’t have an SMS here when I began in 2014,” Deitz said. “I brought that philosophy from my former company, which operated as many as five aircraft at a time.”

Karas also emphasized the importance of scalability. “Whatever works for your specific operation is the answer,” he declared. “An SMS is about the outcome of your performance, not necessarily how you got there.”

Regardless of the unique variables impacting implementation of SMS, Deitz said all programs should have a common foundation. “The SMS process starts before you take steps toward implementing one,” he said. “You must educate your team in the fundamentals of SMS – and first and foremost, there must absolutely be a culture of trust.

“I’ve worked at flight departments that botched SMS implementation, and it was because people didn’t trust the system or saw it as threatening,” he said. “Your department’s culture must be open to the process and open to doing the work to make what might already be a very good flight department even better.”

Despite his concerns, McCullough believes expanding Part 5 will ultimately have positive results.

“Taking a deeper dive into systems processes and standardization will probably be helpful,” he said. “Accident and incident rates will decrease, and insurance rates should follow. Hopefully we’ll fill in some of the holes in the ‘Swiss cheese’ that we see in many accidents.”

Review NBAA’s SMS resources at nbaa.org/sms.

NBAA Calls for Tailored Solution for FAA Part 5 SMS Mandate

Upon release of the FAA’s Part 5 NPRM in January 2023, NBAA expressed its support for the overall intent of the proposed rule but also noted the agency’s approach to that effort – essentially applying a Part 121 SMS framework to other industry segments – doesn’t fit the often-unique requirements of business aviation operations.

Ahead of the NPRM’s April 11 deadline for comments, NBAA issued a Call to Action for business aviation stakeholders to comment on the FAA’s proposal and solicited feedback from members to inform the association’s own response to the NPRM.

Mark Larsen, CAM, NBAA’s director of safety and flight operations, emphasized the FAA’s final rule must provide scalability and flexibility for the smallest operators, while also aligning with ICAO requirements under Annex 19.

That may lead to new and diverging requirements for organizations with a mature ICAO-aligned SMS, he continued. The FAA must also recognize such existing programs and provide guidance to align active SMS with the new Part 5 requirements.

“We share with the FAA the need to keep safety in focus, on the ground and in the air,” Larsen said. “We also know that the best approaches to safety systems come from collaboration between stakeholders in government and industry.”

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