Reducing Risk With SMS

Jan. 1, 2009
FAA seeks best way to integrate Safety Management Systems at airports

CHICAGO — At the 24th Annual Great Lakes Region Airports Conference held here in November, FAA stressed the importance of safety management and announced that to promote a culture of safety in aviation, it will be internalizing safety management systems (SMS) throughout the agency. From air traffic control to runway safety, FAA says it is committed to the implementation of SMS internally and is now working to promote the progression to SMS at airports across the country.

There are various definitions to a safety management system (SMS), but all include the words structured and formalized. Management systems exist for almost everything and apply to almost anything, and FAA is urging airports to apply them to safety.

The advantages to implementing SMS are many, according to FAA, yet the challenges are many as well. It may seem overwhelming to assess and analyze each and every possible safety risk at an airport. But it’s by doing that research, and by standardizing a safety policy based on that research, that FAA says will help airports detect and correct safety problems before they result in incident, or even worse, accident.

This is the essence of SMS; elements which include safety policy, safety risk management (SRM), assurance, and promotion.

In a nutshell, policy defines the approach to managing safety; SRM describes the system, identifies hazards, and controls risk; assurance provides confidence in meeting or exceeding safety requirements; and promotion supports a culture of safety combined with training and data sharing in support of a safety management system.

It is based on the idea that an incident, or repeated incidents, can eventually lead to a catastrophic accident; an accident that could have been avoided had the proper considerations and precautions been put in place. SMS is an attempt to provide those precautions.

SMS in the U.S. began in 2005, when the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) amended policy requiring members to have certified international airports establish an SMS. According to the FAA website, “the FAA supports harmonization of international standards and has worked to make U.S. aviation safety regulations consistent with ICAO standards and recommended practices.”

FAA is currently considering the best way to introduce an SMS requirement to more that 560 U.S. airports certified under Part 139. An actual notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on SMS is not expected until 2010, but FAA is being proactive in introducing and demonstrating the value of SMS at airports.

Kari Spencer, SMS project manager for FAA’s airport safety and operations division, relates that “we are basically in the beginning phases of SMS in the airports industry.”
One of those first phases includes redefining what it means to be a Part 139 airport. The problem, says Spencer, is that in the U.S., airports certified under Part 139 vary greatly in class, size, and operation.

“We will have to amend 139; that’s a given,” says Spencer. “If we want to have a requirement for SMS, we can’t use just Part 139 certification to meet that requirement.”

Spencer also relates that FAA has funded the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) to initiate two SMS-related projects. The first involves giving airport executives a high-level understanding of SMS.

“This is a great executive level read for your airport directors and airport operation managers just to dabble in SMS,” says Spencer.

The second project, which is currently ongoing, is to develop an SMS guidebook for airport operators. This resource is designed to guide airports who choose to implement an SMS before an actual SMS rule is dictated by FAA.

Pilot studies are another way FAA is conducting research to determine the appropriate level of guidance needed for airports to implement an SMS. The first study, completed in July of this year, involved 20 airports and three deliverables: gap analysis, draft program and implementation plan, and final program and implementation plan. Gap analysis is the identification of existing safety components compared with SMS program requirements. This helps airports draft an SMS implementation plan.

FAA realized early, says Spencer, that the first program was top heavy with large-scale class 1 airports. Because the impact of SMS on smaller-scale airports is expected to be “huge,” as Spencer puts it, a second pilot study was initiated which includes eight airports of varying size and complexity. The final report on the second study will be available soon, says Spencer.

A follow-up pilot study was initiated recently and includes one large, one medium-sized airport, and one small airport. The airports chosen for the study were Sea-Tac Airport, South Bend Regional Airport, and Concord Regional Airport in North Carolina. The duration of the study involves one year of monthly reporting on SMS proving elements: safety policy, SRM, and safety assurance.

Spencer relates that the study is structured so that those three pilot airports are not only proving that an SMS works for their airport, but also for airports of similar size and operation.

“The reason why we are only looking at those three areas is when you look at Airport Improvement Program (AIP) eligibility, yes we can fund things under pilot-type studies, but we have to start funding things under safety promotion because AIP eligibility does not extend to training; and many of the elements in your safety policy area would not be eligible items,” says Spencer.

All of the airports participating in the pilot studies are eligible for AIP planning grants to cover the cost of developing an initial SMS, according to FAA’s website.

Safety Management Systems can also be very effective in reducing the risk of runway incursions, explains Steven Smith of FAA’s Runway Safety Office.

From a policy perspective, says Smith, FAA is currently going through the final throes of putting in a new runway safety order. The order includes an updated blueprint, which Smith says is a strategic outline for what FAA plans to do regarding integrating an SMS.

“Internally, we are getting our safety policy up-to-date; our last order is five or six years old and our last blueprint was a 2003-2004 blueprint,” says Smith. “We have come along way since then and we are updating what we’re going to be doing in the near future.”

From a promotional standpoint, which includes training, standardization, and data analysis, FAA is moving to a standard RSAT program, or runway safety action team. RSATs come up with safety action plans which identify risks and hazards on their particular airport. This information is meant to be shared with airports of similar size and configuration by making it readily available online.

“In today’s Runway Safety Office, we don’t share [RSAT] information between regions,” says Smith. “We need that interchange of information, and airports need that information as well.”

Smith relates that it’s an easy way to share specific information about a particular airport configuration in order to help other airports with similar configurations identify their risks.

The root cause analysis team, which Smith has become chair of, is part of the SRM process which investigates runway incursions. The team will not specifically look for blame regarding the incursion, but is more interested in investigating the conditions which led to the incident. The team consists of an investigative effort between the three groups which typically get involved when an incursion takes place: air traffic control (operational error), airport (vehicle or pedestrian deviation), or flight standards (pilot deviation). The collaborative effort between these groups is expected to supply valuable information that could be lost when a particular group directs blame at another.

FAA has also recently convened the Runway Safety Council, a senior executive group responsible for taking a systematic approach to improving runway safety. According to FAA’s website, the goal of the council is to fundamentally change the existing safety culture and move toward a proactive management strategy that involves various segments of the aviation industry. The root cause analysis team will recommend to the runway safety council ways to resolve or mitigate system risks.

“The Runway Safety Council is going to be another piece of an SMS-like process to be able to use safety risk management to reduce the number of runway incursions,” says Smith.

The William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center is considered the world’s premier aviation research and development, test, and evaluation facility. Jim Patterson, who is part of the airport safety technology R&D team at the tech center, deals with safety technologies from airport rescue and firefighting (ARFF) to new large aircraft research (NLA) to runway lighting and much more.

New large aircraft, such as the Airbus A380 and the Boeing B747-8 Dreamliner, is one of the most current issues taken on by the Tech Center.

“The problem here in the United States,” says Patterson, “is that we have compacted our airports in so much, that we really don’t have the ability to build our airports to meet design Group Six standards.”

With six A380’s currently in operation and 192 on order, relates Patterson, “we cannot beat the aircraft to the punch,” meaning, the Tech Center has to be reactive as opposed to proactive.

In an effort to address these issues, Patterson says ARFF trucks are being outfitted with new technologies such as the “next generation high-reach extendable turret.” The turret has a reach of 65 feet with the ability to penetrate the second deck of NLA. The Tech Center is also constantly testing new foam firefighting agents, explains Patterson.
Runway safety technology is another major focus at the Tech Center, says Patterson. The center recently had solar-powered runway guard lights constructed and installed at two airports for testing. The lamps in the guard lights were replaced by LEDs which emit a very crisp flash pattern with less power draw. The lights operate completely on solar power with a battery back-up for night operation.

In the realm of bead and paint marking research, Patterson says current testing is being done on the bonding of reflective beads with waterborne paint. Another new technology, cementitious paint, is made with cement material which has the yellow pigment and glass beads within it. The idea, relates Patterson, is that as the concrete wears, the paint wears at the same time. As new layers of pavement become exposed, more new pigment and beads are exposed as well creating a type of “rejuvenating paint.”

Pavement grooving technology, used to displace water on runways, has an improved design which moves from the standard quarter-inch wide grooves to a trapezoid grooving design, which is wider at the top and thinner at the bottom. The advantage says Patterson, is that the trapezoidal grooves displace water more quickly, are harder to break, and result in less rubber contamination from aircraft tires.

Some of the most innovative safety technologies involve airport visual guidance research, says Patterson. Laser illuminations for airfield applications are an upcoming technology that can be capable of illuminating an entire runway.

“Lasers are the way of the future,” says Patterson. “We are trying to embrace the technology and bring it to our airports as best and safely as we can.”

In-pavement LED sources, which are LEDs encapsulated in plastic extrusions, can be installed into the pavement and work very well for illuminating runway numbers or thresholds, relates Patterson.

“LEDs burn so clear and are so pure in color,” explains Patterson. “Some day in the near future, if you haven’t seen it already, you’re going to see runways with LEDs; you’re going to see instrument approach lighting systems solely made of LEDs.”

The tech center is also researching retro-reflective light points for small general aviation airports as well, says Patterson.

“We are trying to come up with technologies that are affordable and easy to install and would improve the safety of general aviation airports,” explains Patterson.