Straw Poll Makes us Think
A recent straw poll asking what people knew about Safety Management Systems (SMS) in aviation produced some surprising answers. This got me thinking about why anyone would go to the trouble and expense of introducing SMS when it is currently not mandatory for on-demand (FAA Part 135) operations in the USA.
Some know "What", few know "Why"Quite a few responders to the poll said they had good knowledge about what SMS is, but it is clear very few understand why. Quite by chance this video by the comedian Michael Jr. popped up. Watch the video then read on.
Know Your Why
Everybody's Doing It?
There may be a million reasons why anyone would introduce SMS, but "everybody is doing it" is most certainly not one of those reasons. At the first International Helicopter Safety Symposium in Montreal, September 2005, one of the speakers referred to the fact that we had already plucked the low hanging fruit in safety. Using a safety system for many decades that had consistently failed to reduce accident rates, it was agreed at that meeting to form the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) It set an aggressive goal of reducing the worldwide helicopter accident rate by 80% in 10 years (by 2016) There has been some success, with a notable reduction in accident rates globally.
Out With The Old
NTSB: Stall Warning Sounded Before Phenom 100 Crash
So what was the old system? Well think about it, we'd see pictures of smoking holes in the ground surrounded by accident investigators. Given time, hopefully those investigators would find a cause and make recommendations to prevent recurrence of that specific accident. But were those recommendations followed, and if so did they do as expected, i.e prevent a recurrence of that accident? This kind of tombstone safety management has failed to reduce accidents down to the ideal of zero. No doubt changes in technology, procedures, and training have made aviation the safest way to travel. But is it not a disgrace that we have to climb on the backs of so many dead people before anything gets done?
In With the New
How can we change from being reactive, that is after the crash, to proactive, that is before the crash, in our efforts to keep us safe? This is the key to SMS, the "Why". We are beginning see the "What" of SMS in that it is a systematic approach to managing safety, including the necessary organizational structures, accountabilities, polices and procedures. Wow! What a mouthful! OK, so Mom and Pop Aviatiors Inc. decide they need this, and simply copy and paste someone else's manual calling it their own. Job done? Nope... for the simple reason that neither Mom nor Pop actually understand the "Why" of the whole thing. Nor, indeed, do they understand the "What", either. And in any case isn't the "what" they're now doing exactly the same as "what" they've been doing so badly for so many years?
Risk Management and Safety Assurance
Risk management, somewhat new in concept, is how we can become proactive. Before the crash, identify risks, do something to avoid or minimize (mitigate) those risks to an acceptable level, and then make sure that what we did works! This checking back has not been part of safety before. You may have heard aviation companies boast that they are much safer than their competitors simply because they've never had an accident. WRONG! They are just lucky, because the statistics prove them wrong. On the other hand, if they practice effective safety assurance, they can rightly say, "We are safer than our competitors, and we can prove it."
Is it All About Costs?
I am an unabashed cynic. We all know that manufacturers have often been caught out not recalling something they've known about simply because it was cheaper to pay compensation to those hurt. When the accountants (or bean counters) get to the point where they decide it would be cheaper to recall that faulty motor car, or whatever, then and only then do they do it. Anyone with an interest in aviation history know that the cargo door design flaw in the DC 10 eventually led to the demise of McDonnall-Douglas. They knew about it, did nothing, and paid the price in lives lost.
Stand Head and Shoulders Above the Rest
So I would say to Mom and Pop that if they really want to stand head and shoulders above all the rest, they need to consider what they do to prevent accidents, to become clear-headed about why, and to set their standards high and then make sure they achieve those high standards. This involves an enormous commitment to working at it in every aspect of their business. This will pay huge dividends when the regulators announce that SMS is mandatory, because by that time it will be too late to go through the growing pains that all face when completely redesigning the way they manage safety. As they continue to convert their large fortune into a small one in aviation, they can at least sleep soundly at night knowing they are doing their best at preventing accidents.
There are many resources out there. Try the USHST links page first.