Five Steps to Starting Your SMS

November 12, 2021

By the second quarter of 2022, a new mandate for Part 135 operators and Part 145 repair stations will fundamentally shift how aviation businesses approach safety.  

The FAA established the Safety Management Systems (SMS) requirements for Part 121 operators in 2015, which allowed just three years for airlines to develop and implement SMS programmes.

The new mandate may feel daunting, overwhelming, and possibly a bit too much for smaller aviation operators. As a result, operations may find themselves wondering, "Where do I start?" and "What exactly do I need to have?"

On top of that, others may ask, "How does an SMS fit into my operation?"

Luckily, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to SMS – but it doesn't happen overnight. Instead, it's a journey where managers continually ask, "What is best for the business?"

Pilot reading manual

The first step is commitment. We're here to help with the rest.

1. Set the Precedence with a Safety Policy

In general, deciding on safety policies is up to the operator.

Ask: what policies would set the organisation up for safety success? The answers should be both simple and straightforward.

For managers, a gap analysis serves as a great starting place. A gap analysis determines an operator's current state of safety and looks towards the desired state to understand the 'gap' in between. From here, managers can more clearly see where to focus time and resources and plan for SMS implementation.

2. Train Key Managers and Safety Personnel

Training lays a foundation for the SMS to be successful. It helps to clear up questions like, "What exactly is an SMS?", "What are its objectives?" and "What can we expect?"

Not everyone likes change, but training with honest answers to these questions can make the transition into a new way of operating smoother. Trained managers set precedence for new safety expectations. Trained employees lay the groundwork for future training.

Soon, SMS training will be a part of the job and will act as a gel for a cohesive safety environment.

3. Create a Reporting Programme

Essential to creating an SMS programme is listing all the mandatory and voluntary safety issues for employees to report.

Examples of mandatory safety issues include:

  • Runway collision
  • Collusion-related occurrences
  • Tools missing
  • Pilot fatigue
  • Aircraft structural defects

Voluntary safety issues tend to be hidden until an event triggers them. These can be anything from security team member fatigue to debris in the runway.  

A generic framework for encouraging voluntary reporting includes:

  • Trust that information won't be used against the reporter
  • Protection from penalty
  • Inclusive reporting base that encompasses all aspects of the business
  • Confidentiality within the reporter's identity
Fixed-wing aircraft flying over landscape

4. Start Collecting Data

Safety objectives define what the organisation intends to achieve. Therefore, without data, operators would have no idea how their SMS is doing.

Defining Safety Performance Indicators (SPIs) and Safety Performance Targets (SPTs) can help achieve this.

SPT's helps management figure out whether or not they will achieve their objectives. Both quantifiable data (measurable and defined) and qualitative data (descriptive) are helpful. However, operators must limit subjectivity in qualitative data.

SPT's must be:

  • developed in all areas of the operation
  • related to the safety objectives
  • selected based on the available data
  • reliably measured
  • specific and quantifiable
  • realistic

SPI's act as millstones that evaluate the success of the SMS. Ultimately, SPI's provide a measurable way for verifying whether the organisation is achieving its safety objectives.

As Flight Operation Quality Assurance (FOQA) and Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) become more available to smaller aircraft operators, there has never been a better time to collect data.

5. Define Lagging and Leading Indicators

With new technology, aviation operators no longer need to rely solely on lagging indicators – the traditional metric used to indicate compliance towards safety.

Lagging indicators are bottom-line numbers that evaluate overall compliance with safety rules.

Lagging indicators do not act as indicators that can prevent incidents.

Leading indicators are measures that proceed a future event. They are used to prevent or control undesired events and can include:

  • Percentage or frequency of acceptable, mitigable, and unacceptable issues
  • Average number and percentage of accidents per employee per year
  • Average time to implement actions on complaints

Safety programmes are a great way to ensure those metrics are measured. For example, reporting dashboards like those in Spidertracks's Virtual FDR allow organisations to view, set, analyse, and filter specific flight information such as excessive roll, maximum altitude, and heading change at low speed.

Remember, there is no right way to implement SMS. What's essential is that it works well for your business.

For more information on how Spidertracks can enable the collection of data, and the role we can play in SMS development, click here.

Keep up with the latest aviation insights

Subscribe for industry news, delivered direct to your inbox ⤸