Industy Viewpoint

Sept. 17, 2010
An introduction of the structured process for managing safety

There’s a lot of talk in aviation circles about safety management systems, or SMS; but there’s also a lot of confusion as to what it means, as well as, how it will impact maintenance. It’s important for mechanics to understand what SMS is all about so they can contribute their thoughts and ideas as safety management systems develop and so they can be ready when SMS comes to their organization. In simplest terms, SMS is a structured process for managing safety and safety risk. It includes top-down policies for establishing safety processes, methods for identifying hazards, evaluating risk and actions to minimize those risks, and continual evaluation of those policies and their implementation.

While a number of aviation organizations, including air carriers, repair stations, and Part 91 operators, are voluntarily establishing SMS programs, SMS will become mandatory for many companies in the not-too-distant future. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), of which the United States is a member state, promulgated the requirement that member states mandate that covered organizations establish SMS. Covered organizations include those who provide products or services regulated under Parts 21, 119, 121, 125, 135, 141, 142, and 145 of the Federal Aviation Regulations.

The United States has accepted ICAO’s mandate and is in the process of formulating regulations to implement that mandate. To that end, the FAA issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) in 2009, soliciting public comments on a potential SMS rule for U.S. air carriers, repair stations, and product manufacturers, among others. To date, the FAA has established an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) composed of aviation industry experts to review public comments in response to the ANPRM and to advise the FAA on an SMS rule. The ARC is currently divided into three working groups, one of which is the Maintenance Working Group. FAA’s web site provides additional information on SMS and is updated regularly regarding the rulemaking activities (

An example is worth 1,000 words

Here’s a simplified example I use to demonstrate how SMS would work in the maintenance arena. Say an aircraft returns to the gate because the No. 2 generator on an engine is not working. An inspection of the generator reveals that one of the electrical connections was not properly secured. A logbook review indicates that this system had been previously worked on, repairs were made, and the aircraft was released for return to service. Thereafter, maintenance properly secures the electrical connections, closes up the aircraft, signs off the logbook, and sends it on its way.

In a non-SMS environment, that might be the end of the story. In an SMS-world, the event would be written up in accordance with established procedures, reviewed in accordance with those procedures, and a determination made as to the facts and circumstances that led to the electrical connections being improperly secured. (Similar to what Event Review Committees do under the Aviation Safety Action Program or ASAP.) Human factors would be considered, as well as the applicable manuals and any other relevant factors.

If, for example, it was determined that the connections were improperly secured because the mechanic hand-tightened the nut; and that this was done because no torque wrench was available, a SMS would develop training and procedures to mitigate the risks of a future occurrence.

This entire process would be fully documented and retained for analysis of whether the “fix” in fact corrected the problem. Continual evaluation of the effectiveness of risk mitigations is a hallmark