Buckle up—the journey might get a little bumpy for unprepared operators.

As of May 28, 2024, Part 135 on-demand operators, Part 91.147 air tour operators, and certain Part 21 certificate holders could no longer stand idle and wait for a safety management system (SMS) mandate. The long-anticipated expansion of the Part 5 SMS rule has arrived. With it, over 2,500 affected entities must plan to complete their SMS journey within two or three years (depending on the certificate). That generous timeline will expire in the blink of an eye for many operators who delayed implementation plans.

The new rule improves alignment with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Annex 19—Safety Management while addressing several FAA calls to action, including congressional mandates and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations. While the rule is too lengthy to summarize in this article, we will address and comment on some noteworthy elements of it.

Who Must Comply with the New SMS Rule?

The reach of the SMS rule has extended far beyond Part 121 air carriers. If you currently hold or are in the process of applying for any certificate or letter of authorization issued under US federal aviation regulations, it’s crucial that you familiarize yourself with the updated rule and how it may impact your operation. Whether you’re a commuter operator, on-demand operator, or you conduct passenger-­carrying flights for compensation or hire, this rule is relevant to you, in whole or in part. Here’s a brief overview of the revised applicability. For more details, please refer to Part 5.1.

  • Operations conducted under Part 121 (air carriers)
  • Operations conducted under Part 135 (commuter and on-demand operations)​—new
  • Operations conducted under Part 91.147 Letter of Authorization (LOA) holders or applicants (passenger-carrying flights for compensation or hire)—new
  • Part 21 type certificate and production certificate holders—new.

Small-Operator Exemptions

Some SMS requirements do not apply to certain single-pilot operators. A review of Part 5.9(e) reveals 13 potential Part 5 exemptions that may apply to a select group of single-pilot operators, specifically “entities with a single pilot who is the sole individual performing all necessary functions in the conduct and execution related to, or in direct support of, the safe operation of the aircraft.”

This exemption would require the individual to be the aviation equivalent to the “chief cook and bottle washer.” All necessary functions of the sole individual are clarified in the new rule to “generally include: operational control, refueling, ground handling of the aircraft, flight planning, weight and balance calculations, performance of preventive maintenance, coordination of maintenance activities, preflight and post-flight activities, and financial decisions related to operating the aircraft safely, in addition to operating the aircraft.”

If a sole proprietor performs all those tasks without assistance, they will indeed get much-needed relief from illogical requirements like submitting a written hazard report to themselves.

What Is a Safety Management System?

If you’re not yet familiar with the foundational components of an SMS and how to apply them, it’s time to get up to speed, and fast. The definitions section of the SMS rule is short, with only 10 definitions provided. An SMS, as defined in Part 5.3, is “the formal, top-down, organization-wide approach to managing safety risk and assuring the effectiveness of safety risk controls. It includes systematic procedures, practices, and policies for the management of safety risk.”

Definitions of an SMS from most resources follow a similar theme to that shown above. For those still disoriented by the whole thing, I prefer to think of SMS from an operational risk management perspective and ask three simple questions.

  1. What keeps you up at night? To consider what can go wrong in daily operations, one must attempt to identify employee and customer exposure to hazardous conditions and activities hiding in plain sight or lurking in the shadows. This is no small task, but it is the most critical SMS activity. Every employee and stakeholder must participate in this process (via, for example, observation, interviews, surveys, and so on). Once this process is completed, an operator should develop a comprehensive list of hazardous activities and conditions and assess the corresponding risk level based on probability and severity. The risks deemed too high must be mitigated to the lowest acceptable level.
  2. What are you doing about it once you’ve identified some risks that need mitigating to reach a lower, more “acceptable” level? Beyond avoidance, what else can be done to reduce the likelihood or severity of those risks resulting in an accident or incident? What policies, procedures, training, and education can you provide to ensure that employees and customers understand workplace hazards and how to avoid, mitigate, and report them?
  3. How do you know if it’s working? What are your results? Don’t just consider lagging indicators such as accident and incident statistics. Do employees feel safe reporting unsafe conditions? A spike in employee reports (this is a good thing versus accidents) should provide the information you need to answer that question. Are employees more invested in workplace safety and efficiency? Do they better understand hazards, and are they being reported before they lead to undesired outcomes? If the answer to these questions is yes, you are off to a good start. Be patient and repeat the process, addressing any gaps you discover.

Of course, getting beyond a general understanding of SMS is paramount for compliance with the new rule. Where should you start? Fortunately, several excellent resources are available to make that determination. Here are some to consider in your quest for SMS knowledge:

  • Safety Management Systems Rule: Federal Register PDF version of the final SMS rule.
  • Advisory Circular 120-92B: Safety Management Systems for Aviation Service Providers.
  • Safety Management International Collaboration Group (SM ICG) Products: This Skybrary site contains 40 documents on SMS.
  • Vertical Aviation Safety Team (VAST) Safety Library: Click on the “SMS” text filter to display 40 downloadable resources, including SMS tool kits, videos, and guides.

Complexity and Scalability Concerns

Section 2.2 of AC 120-92B acknowledges that SMS can indeed be a “complex topic with many aspects to consider.” For those concerned about the challenges of implementing an SMS, the FAA assures us that “an SMS does not have to be an extensive, expensive, or sophisticated array of techniques to do what it is supposed to do. Rather, an SMS is built by structuring your safety management around four components: safety policy, safety risk management, safety assurance, and safety promotion.”

Concerns regarding scaling an organization’s SMS to comply with the new rule were well documented during the notice of proposed rulemaking process. From the rule: “An SMS must be suitable for the size, scope, and complexity of the organization and include: safety policy, safety risk management, safety assurance, and safety promotion.” The FAA’s response to these concerns is that Part 5 offers provisions for scalability, as does AC120-92B, which states: “The SMS requirements are the same regardless of the size of your organization. However, Part 5 allows organizations of different sizes to meet those requirements in different ways. The SMS functions do not need to be extensive or complex to be effective. All businesses, regardless of size, may use existing systems, programs and resources to document and track safety issues to resolution.”

You Are Not Alone—We Got You!

VAI and its network of safety program partners stand ready to help, offering our members and the overall industry access to education, tools, coaching, and analysis to guide our members through critical SMS milestones. Regardless of your organization’s size or SMS maturity, our resources are tailored to your development, implementation, validation—and, now, declaration requirements. VAI President and CEO James Viola looks forward to the opportunity to help. “We knew this day was coming, so for the past several years, we’ve built a powerful network of partners ready to provide our members the SMS solutions they need to succeed,” Viola says.

SMS education: VAI offers several ways to enhance your foundational knowledge of SMS. Through VAI’s Learning Management System (LMS), registered users can view three SMS courses tailored to small operators and maintenance organizations: “How Small Operators Can Develop an SMS”; “SMS for Small Fleet Operators”; and “The Dirty Dozen: Integrating the Quality and Safety Management Process.” Finally VAI, through its partnership with the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) and the Transportation Safety Institute (TSI) are providing NATA’s SMS course, offered through the TSI and available to VAI members at a discounted rate. This five-day course explains how to design, develop, implement, and sustain an effective and verifiable aviation SMS. To learn more, go to rotor.org/nata-sms-course.

SMS coaching: SMS development and implementation isn’t easy. Doing it correctly and in regulatory compliance will take time and effort. But we’ve got you! Our network of expert SMS service providers includes complimentary coaching services that accompany various available SMS software and evaluation solutions. To learn more, go to rotor.org/sms.

SMS software: Are you having trouble organizing the work that supports your SMS? There’s an app for that! While in-house tracking with spreadsheets and other desktop applications can be used to demonstrate evidence of SMS compliance, there’s a better way. SMS software and tracking solutions are specifically designed to make your SMS journey much easier. VAI has partnered with four industry-leading software solution providers who are ready to save you time and effort, giving you more time to focus on the business of flying aircraft and turning wrenches. To learn more, go to rotor.org/sms.

SMS evaluation: Do you need another set of eyes to help evaluate gaps in your SMS implementation? Perhaps you’re getting close to making a declaration of compliance, indicating that you’ve developed and implemented an SMS that meets the applicable requirements of the expanded Part 5. VAI, in partnership with WYVERN, is offering a preflight check of your SMS, which will help you determine just how prepared you are. A more comprehensive SMS evaluation, accompanied by a professional SMS coach, will ensure that you can declare with confidence when your SMS implementation is complete. To learn more, go to rotor.org/sms.

Disclaimer: VAI strongly encourages all potential stakeholders to conduct their own internal review of the new SMS rule and seek professional assistance to determine their own strategy to ensure compliance.

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Chris Hill

Chris Hill

After an aviation career in the US Army and Coast Guard, Chris Hill oversaw aviation safety management systems throughout the USCG as aviation safety manager. He holds an ATP rating and has logged more than 5,000 flight hours, primarily in military and commercial helicopters. Chris joined HAI in 2018 as director of safety.