There’s an affordable SMS solution out there, no matter your size.

Here are three actual situations confronted by three operators:

  • Thunderstorms are looming within 3 miles of the airport, and an aircraft needs refueling
  • An air ambulance crew is called out for a flight, and the sun is already setting
  • A crew isn’t sure whether their survival vests should be worn under or over their personal protective gear.

No accidents or incidents resulted because the operators understood the risks involved—an explosion, a crash, a drowning—and worked to reduce them. And whether the operators knew it or not, the process they used to minimize the dangers in each situation was a form of safety management. Identifying risks particular to your operation and taking steps to mitigate those risks are critical steps in a safety management system (SMS).

An SMS helps you to accomplish those tasks in a structured, consistent way and adds a continuous improvement loop where you evaluate the results and determine next steps. That’s why any operator, from a single owner to a large company, can—and should—implement an SMS. Without one, your safety program won’t be as comprehensive, consistent, and effective as it could be.

Three Questions Will Get You Started

It’s easier to get started using an SMS than you might think. The first—and most important—step is to answer three simple questions, says Chris Hill, HAI’s senior director of safety and manager of the association’s SMS program:

1. What keeps you up at night?

Here’s where you determine the safety concerns that worry you the most. One helpful way to begin this exercise is to ask yourself, “If I had an accident tomorrow, what could it possibly be?” Focus on the hazards most likely to occur and those with the most severe consequences.

2. What are you doing about it?

For each hazard you identified in Step 1, assess the level of risk it poses to your organization. Then rank those risks from highest to lowest priority. This way you can budget your time and money to focus on mitigating the risks that pose the biggest threat.

The next step is to uncover the factors that lead to the hazard. Use a team approach here, if possible, to look at both direct and latent factors, including your policies, procedures, and safety culture.

For example, the factor that directly led to the hazard might be a maintenance technician leaving a tool on an aircraft. But what latent factors are present? Do you have a tool control program? Was the technician trained in that program? Was he or she distracted, fatigued, or pressured to complete the task quickly? Most aviation accidents have a chain of contributing factors, and it’s worth looking at how disrupting any of these will break that chain.

Finally, create SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) goals to address the factors that will best mitigate the risk, either by making it less likely to happen or decreasing the severity of the consequences. For example, if bird strikes are identified as a hazard, then you could direct pilots to avoid routes over landfills known to attract birds, making a bird strike less likely. You could also direct pilots to wear helmets with visors, making the consequences of a strike less severe.

This step will most likely involve other staff members: you may need to create training, change policies and procedures, or purchase protective equipment. While those may cost time and money, the costs are nothing compared with the liability exposure, expense, and potential loss of life associated with an accident.

3. How do you know it worked?

Because in Step 2 you created SMART goals to address risk factors, you can look at the resulting data and see if your risk-reduction goal was met. If you didn’t see the results you were expecting, adjust your strategy and try again. This step is called risk assurance.

The structure of SMS has a lot in common with that of total quality management programs, in that it’s not a “one-and-done” exercise. Just like quality, safety is not a destination but a cycle of continuous improvement. Another benefit of SMS is that it makes improving safety into a systematic process, helping you to avoid a purely reactive, ad hoc approach.

Keep Reporting Simple, Nonpunitive

The emphasis on hazard reporting is one thing that sets an SMS apart from other safety systems. Keep the report format simple—a single-
page form, for instance. It could be as simple as writing down your thoughts after a flight or some maintenance work, or simply when things could have been done better.

“It’s important to keep reporting simple, since it’s easy to overlook the small things when you’re focused on running a business, things that can bite you later,” says Rick Kenin, an HAI Board member and COO at Boston MedFlight, a Part 135 air ambulance company.

SMS may seem complicated, but it really boils down to this: operators need to systematically and continuously collect information about safety hazards, implement strategies to reduce the identified risk, and then track results and adjust strategies as necessary to ensure that the identified level of risk is reduced. Operators execute their SMS through their safety culture, policy, risk management, assurance, and promotion activities. (HAI/Octavio Calderon Image)

Requiring too much information can make busy employees feel bogged down in paperwork. Most important, staff need assurances that they won’t get in trouble for reporting unsafe conditions and that management will value their reports.

“Consistent reporting is encouraged,” says Chris Chop, chief pilot and president of Aviation Safety Partners as well as an IS-BAO (International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations)–certified auditor for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, in describing how reporting should be presented. “And it’s nonpunitive unless the incident was willful.”

While getting a new hazard report on your desk can be hard to view as a positive thing, remember that the report isn’t the problem. The hazard is the problem. The more you know about that hazard and the risks it carries, the better equipped you are to create and implement strategies to mitigate those risks. Industry observers say that a large number of reports doesn’t mean the company is plagued with safety problems; rather, a significant amount of reporting likely means the operator maintains a healthy safety culture.

For a single operator without a staff, reporting consists basically of self-evaluation. Chop recalls auditing a one-man, one-helicopter operation where the SMS was done manually with spreadsheets. “He developed goals and did his own risk assessment both pre- and post-flight,” he says.

In one self-evaluation Chop reviewed, the sole operator noted the times he was in a hurry and had used the manufacturer’s abbreviated start checklist rather than the long one. This allowed him to better understand the risks and factors that determined which checklist to use.

“He tracked each use and frequency and evaluated the risk,” says Chop. “So you can do it. It’s all about what you want to report and manage.”

Safety Culture and Management Buy-In Are Key

The success of an SMS hinges on a strong company safety culture and buy-in throughout the company, from the line worker to the CEO or owner. Chop credits the success of his company’s SMS to his management’s commitment, noting that Aviation Safety Partners’ leaders consistently promote the program. “Both sides need to build trust [in the system],” he says.

Ideally, under SMS the entire company functions as one big safety team where everyone is empowered to voice safety concerns, with no fear of retribution unless the hazard was created through deliberate disregard for regulations, policies, and procedures. If an SMS doesn’t gain this level of support, it will be nothing more than a manual on a shelf collecting dust.

Management support is also essential for the success of two other SMS components, safety policy and safety promotion. If deviation from the norms is tolerated or if the message from the company on safety isn’t consistent, then your SMS is doomed.

“Top leadership commitment is a must; without it, you’re not going to get anywhere,” says HAI’s Hill.

However, “the larger the company, the more effort it takes to install an SMS,” Hill continues. He compares the process of implementing an SMS to steering a big ship, where changing course takes longer than on a smaller vessel.

“Smaller companies, where the chief pilot might also be the safety manager, director of maintenance, and owner, can get
on board more quickly because there are fewer people to train,” Hill notes.

Getting Started

Starting an SMS can be a big change for both employees and managers. Hill lists hazard identification as a good place to begin. In addition to employee reports, tools such as surveys, audits, inspections, and assessments are effective ways to obtain information about possible hazards.

There’s a wealth of SMS information out there; visit the Safety Toolbox section at And, of course, there’s the HAI SMS Program (see “An SMS Deal Too Good to Refuse,” below), which HAI offers exclusively to its operator and maintenance-provider members.

The thought of implementing an SMS in your own operation might seem overwhelming. But when you boil it down, there’s no mystery—or complexity—to it. SMS requires you to:

  • Collect information about safety hazards
  • Implement strategies to reduce the identified risk
  • Track results and adjust strategies as necessary to ensure that the identified level of risk is reduced.

This can all be done via an app, Excel, or pen and paper. What’s important is that you ask and answer those three questions listed at the beginning of this article—and then systematically continue to do so.

You can’t eliminate aviation risks entirely, but you can reduce them to an acceptable level, and that’s the purpose of an SMS. When an accident occurs, failure to manage is no excuse and your lack of an SMS will be noted by insurers and regulators.

An SMS Deal Too Good to Refuse

HAI’s program lets operators, maintenance organizations elevate safety effectively, affordably.

It’s just a matter of time, say aviation safety specialists, until the FAA requires all aircraft operators to have an SMS program in place. But setting one up can seem overwhelming.

A review of FAA Advisory Circular 120–92b and ICAO Document 9859, with their dense technical jargon and mazes of flowcharts, makes it easy to see why an operator might give up on an SMS. Yet, safety organizations and civil aviation authorities around the world recommend that aircraft operators and aviation maintenance organizations should treat safety management as an essential operational function.

That’s why HAI created a member benefit to make the whole process easier for their operator and maintenance-provider members. “We asked our members what the most important service is that we could offer,” says HAI President and CEO James Viola. “The overwhelming answer was an SMS solution. Now, our members won’t have to try to build one from the bottom up.”

After evaluating more than a dozen prominent SMS software providers, HAI selected four organizations (see graphic, above) that offer the services that operators and maintenance providers, regardless of size, need to launch a quality, turnkey SMS.

Despite the significant HAI member discounts the providers offer, their services aren’t scaled back: HAI members will receive the same software solutions offered to other customers, notes Chris Hill, HAI’s senior director of safety and manager of HAI’s SMS Program. “All four providers are well-known and respected in the aviation industry and highly regarded by insurers,” Hill says.

Because helicopter flight generally involves more manual, nonautomated operations than fixed-wing flying, vertical aviation potentially comes with more risk, making an SMS especially important in rotorcraft work, says Dan Cerkan, founder and CEO of Balefire Safety Systems. Cerkan cites as examples construction work in areas with limited landing options and the demands placed on air ambulance crews picking up patients off-site. Conversely, “typically an airplane takes off, climbs to altitude, and the autopilot takes over,” he says.

And with SMS anticipated to become a regulatory requirement for some operations, adopting one now will put your company ahead of competitors. “Don’t wait for the regulators, or you’ll be behind the curve,” advises Jason Starke, Baldwin Aviation’s director of safety and product development. “SMS is now a global standard.”

Starke adds that good SMS software must adapt to the customer’s needs, not the other way around. In other words, it needs to be scalable and easy to use. “If it isn’t intuitive or you need to go through a million convoluted steps to submit a report, people won’t use it.”

Bob Rufli, director of operations at the Air Charter Safety Foundation, agrees, citing simplicity and flexibility as major assets in a good software package: “Participation requires a system that’s straightforward, where anyone can file a report without log-ins or passwords.”

To encourage participation in the program, there should be multiple ways to enter data, says Sonnie Bates, CEO of WYVERN Ltd. He cites as an example “having the ability for someone on the flight line to just speak into a phone for an entry so there’s no typing involved.”

In the end, an SMS just makes sense for any aviation operation concerned about safety. “Every business has safety objectives, and an SMS program is simply a tool to help a business continually improve, continually focus, and continually get better,” says Ric Peri, VP of government and industry affairs for the Aircraft Electronics Association. “So please, don’t be afraid of SMS. Embrace it as a business tool to make your business better.”

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Paul Koscak

Paul Koscak

Paul Koscak is a freelance writer and an aviator. He holds CFI, CFII, and MEI (multi-engine instructor) ratings and has 2,500 total flight hours. A former newspaper reporter and editor, broadcast journalist, and retired US Air Force Reserve officer, Paul recently retired from the US Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Public Affairs.