FAA Should Fast-Track SMS Regulation

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Recent Congressional and NTSB hearings on the December 2008 Colgan accident have turned up the heat on regional airline safety, and the FAA is moving quickly to enhance existing pilot fatigue regulations. On the other hand, the implementation of a Safety Management System (SMS) regulation is moving very slowly. While the FAA should be commended for taking prompt action on pilot fatigue, they are missing the target!

Because of the Colgan accident, the FAA will implement a new flight time and rest rule. U.S. operators and unions will be tasked to insist that airlines obtain all available FAA pilot records. FAA inspectors will complete a review of airline procedures for identifying and tracking pilots who fail evaluations or demonstrate a need for additional training. Inspectors will validate that the airline’s training and qualification programs meet regulatory standards.

The FAA also expects airlines that have contracts with regional operators to develop programs to share safety data and ensure that their partners mirror their most effective safety practices.

Bill Voss, President of the Flight Safety Foundation, recently stated that the character of accidents is changing. “Accidents resulting from human factors issues and loss of control are becoming more common.” Another big concern is public perception of airline safety. “Not since the summer of 2005, when we crashed an airplane a week, has public perception been as bad as this. Safety of the world’s aviation system relies on sharing information, both among competitors-airlines and other stakeholders-and among regulators. We need to understand why humans and aircraft are getting tied up.”

In almost a third of the accidents last year, deficient airline safety management was a contributing factor. This includes deficiencies in the airline’s safety policies and objectives, risk management, safety assurance and safety promotion. The majority of accidents involving deficiencies in the airline’s safety management also implicated deficient regulatory oversight by the regulatory authorities.

Since accidents are usually the result of many causes, shouldn’t the FAA focus on mandating a system’s approach that will minimize all types of errors? Suppose that an SMS had been in place at Colgan and even Air France? If an SMS was in place, early indicators and factors would have been captured, identified, analyzed and corrective actions put in place. Just maybe the mishaps would have been prevented. It certainly could not have been worse than what happened! There is no better program for collecting safety and event data than an SMS, especially if you have the right tools in place-FOQA and ASAP are components of a good SMS along with a good SMS application.

So why is it taking the FAA so long to mandate Safety Management Systems? A review of all the FAA Advisory Circulars and Orders shows that they are already aligned with ICAO SMS guidance. At the pace the FAA is taking, it will be 3-5 years before there is an SMS regulation, and it will likely take another 1-3 years after that to get SMS operational by the operators. The FAA should rethink their SMS strategy and fast track a rulemaking program so information sharing is bolstered and incidents and events can be addressed sooner, not later.

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1 Comment on "FAA Should Fast-Track SMS Regulation"

  1. Concerned flyer | June 18, 2010 at 11:08 am | Reply

    I agree. There are way too many incidents that are not even mentioned in the media. One look at the NTSB and FAA websites, would make someone really wonder about what goes on behind the cockpit door. Runway incursions, bad language abilities of foreign pilots, and air controllers… I say imposed an SMS sooner rather than later as well as impose more realistic training curricula. My brother works for a simulator company and says that there is much better software on the horizon for more realistic training such as CAE’s True Immersion.

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