FAA SMS … Boom or Bust?

At this time a safety management system created by an aviation service provider is still a voluntary program, applicable to airlines, repair facilities, and any other provider in the business, certificated or noncertificated. It is simply an amplified and detailed safety system that in an airline application covers many areas including but not limited to maintenance and flight operations. Below is how the NPRM defines what it is. If you work for any type of these service providers you are most certainly going to have to work with this kind of safety system and become familiar with how it works.

Besides setting out a way of doing business, what it really boils down to is a sophisticated data gathering activity, in the general areas of flight operations, maintenance, human factors, and communications. The theory is that by carefully analyzing data, problem areas can be defined and pinpointed and hopefully corrected before safety is compromised therefore preventing accidents. Designed to predict risk, it is also proposed and designed to share with other people.

The data to be collected is very important both to individuals and to the operator. How would it be collected, stored, and provided to other operators is a significant concern. At the same time, sharing of safety information is at the core of the SMS program. Most operators on the other hand have expressed reluctance to share their data. Why can’t this part of SMS be made voluntary by the participants?

Older programs

Data gathering programs have been around in different forms for some time with different names. The legacy program was FAR 121.373 CAS or CASP, the Continuous Analysis and Surveillance Program. Mandated by regulation for all Part 121 and some 135 air carrier operations many years ago. One of its important features, among others, is the internal analysis of repeat discrepancy write-ups so that they can be analyzed, fixed, and not repeated, therefore enhancing safety. It is still a required process that all major airlines must follow and this data is available to the FAA.

You can only begin to wonder why we need so many safety programs and now another one. Also, of course we have Aviation Safety Action Plan or Partnership (ASAP), the Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA) plan, and the big gun, the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS). These programs, like ASAP, gather data and do a good job of detecting problems that have already happened. The idea is to analyze them in order to avoid them in the future. SMS systems are designed to predict problems in advance. I would think that SMS will replace all of the old data gathering programs in time.

The FAA for the past 20 years or so has been seeking to saddle the industry with data gathering programs so that it can, among other things, look at them as a possible indicator of violations, and oh yes … to offer a safety system of sorts. The data only went to the FAA. … it was still proprietary for the most part.

There is little doubt that there is no way all the data can be analyzed by the current staff levels of the FAA in the AVR sections even with computer help. Perhaps by combining them into one SMS system they would focus the effort toward a more organized safety process. It could be made a simpler and more efficient regulatory mandate. Cancel CASS, ASAP, etc. and combine them all into SMS?

Brought to us by ICAO

Now, SMS comes along as the be-all-and-end-all safety program. We have to remember that this process was extracted and mandated to us by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and of course our own Aviation Safety section of the FAA. EASA has recently published its proposed SMS rules for its repair stations. It becomes interesting to speculate how our domestic repair stations will cope with both EASA and FAA SMS rules … when the FAA finally gets around to publishing the rule.

SMS generally attempts to track and use what is called the ISO type of quality surveillance process, which is a long-standing, well-respected quality assurance program that includes all of the standard safety characteristics as well. The process also tracks some of the concepts of our own FAA ATOS system.

Now, SMS is an attempt by our FAA to create another well-defined safety system that will mesh with the ICAO standard system and EASA’s system. The idea being therefore to create a uniform system with which to compare safety standards and share statistics with each of the affected airline operators around the world. This is a noble concept but many feel it just won’t work insofar as the sharing concept is concerned.

The FAA also intends to provide data on accidents it has collected to the NTSB. This will probably include SMS data. The NTSB can contribute its expertise to looking closer at FAA collected data and examine accidents with more precision.


The design and implementing process for SMS in our FAA has now been ongoing for the past five years or so and the original document that set out the goals and system setup is AC 120-92A, dated Aug. 12, 2010, drafted by AFS 900, titled Safety Management Systems for Aviation Service Providers.

The requirement for an SMS system to be in place in the 121 environment is three years after the effective date of the final rule … and we are not getting there any time soon. The only thing we have is the NPRM. A 121 carrier, can design and implement an SMS along the FAA guidelines in the NPRM any time it wants on a voluntary basis.

Integration of existing programs

Following are some of the numerous reporting programs for air carriers, and applicable to other certificate holders as well, that provide for the collection, analysis, and review of various safety data. All but the last pertain to 121 air carriers. These systems are designed to capture data not otherwise available to FAA. There may be more obscure ones but these are the most visible.

  • Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS)
  • Aviation Safety Action Plan (ASAP) (AC 120-66)
  • Flight Data Analysis Program (FDAP)
  • Flight Operations Quality Assurance Plan (FOQA) (AC 120-02)
  • FAR 121.173 Continuous Analysis and Surveillance System (CASS)
  • Line Operations Safety Audits (LOSA) AC 120-90
  • Advanced Qualification Program (AQP) (14CFR 121 Y, 121.901-121.925)
  • Internal Evaluation Programs (IEP) AC 120-59A
  • Voluntary Disclosures (AC 00-58)
  • Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) (Part 830 accidents) (FAR 121.359h)
  • Flight Data Recorder (FDR)
  • Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) (Part 91, 121)

There is provision to integrate some of these existing safety programs into the new SMS program suggested in the NPRM. The ASAP, FOQA, ATOS, and perhaps the regulatory effort of the CASS program could all be incorporated into one single program. It undoubtedly would be more efficient to get rid of some of these older programs and bring them within an SMS program. We shall see when the rule is published just what is included.

On the other hand it may be more convenient and simpler to have the regulation to allow some operators to simply continue with their legacy programs by having them approved as compliant with any SMS regulation. At the same time, any SMS regulation should allow for clear crossover communication between the existing voluntary safety programs outlined above and should promote some consistency among them.

There is a problem, however, the SMS proposal so far does not include an employee confidential statement nor does it provide for the protection of proprietary carrier data. Perhaps we may see this in the regulation when it is published. The fear in the industry is that critical proprietary operator safety information would be disclosed and would act as a deterrent to employee disclosure.

Protection of voluntarily submitted information or other data – FAR 193

FAA acknowledges that there are some problems in protection of information: “… a reluctance of some persons to share information, that when in the hands of a Government Agency, may be required to be released to the public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or other means,” NPRM FAR 193.

In 2000, the FAA published the NPRM regarding the protection of voluntarily disclosed safety information. The Regulation FAR 193 was published in 2001. It is titled “Protection of Voluntarily Submitted Information.” All I can suggest is for you to find it and read when you can. I am confident that you will agree with me that there are so many loopholes in the regulation that just about anything you tell the government may not be kept private. If they want to release private information, Part 193 shows them how to do it. There are many exceptions to the rule. For example, at the end of 193.7 it clearly states that the FAA will release protected information if ordered to do so by a court. Any SMS regulation would have to prevent any disclosure in any way.

Stephen P. Prentice is an attorney whose practice involves FAA-NTSB issues. He has an Airframe and Powerplant certificate and is an ATP rated pilot. He is a USAF veteran. Send comments to aerolaw@att.net.