WSJ’s Pasztor exposes the new SMS safety concept to readers

sms safety concept
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The SMS Safety Concept

All too often, the stories written by “so called” aviation reporters bear strong resemblance to press releases issued by companies/ lawyers/ pundits with a particular perspective on an issue. Relying on such sources is a virtual necessity because the subject matter is densely technical and involve complicated facts—all difficult to translate into language comprehensible to their readers.

A notable exception to that secondary source tendency was the Pulitzer Prize winner transportation editor of The New York Times, Richard Witkin. The successor to the seat occupied by Dick and others is Andy Pasztor.

sms safety concept

Relating the journalistic credentials of the author of the below-referenced article is intended to make it clear that Mr. Pasztor’ s article merits reading. The opening sentence of his analysis makes it clear what his subject is:

“Government oversight of aviation safety is changing dramatically in many parts of the globe, with carriers and enforcement authorities working together more closely than ever to reduce risks.

From the U.S. to Europe to parts of Latin America, airline officials and regulators increasingly are focused on sharing information and taking joint action to prevent accidents and serious incidents before they occur—rather than imposing rules based on lessons learned from crashes.

At the heart of the system: voluntary moves by carriers intent on going beyond mere compliance with basic regulations. Airlines are sharing their own sophisticated data analyses, which typically pinpoint budding safety hazards before regulators by themselves could identify the risks.”

This may be the first general circulation (although WSJ readers may not well fit the “general” audience denomination) on the subject of Safety Management System as the future primary regulatory tool.

SMS safety concept

The data collected and analyzed by the SMS discipline has helped the regulator and the regulated to focus their attention on “fixing” potential problems rather than “fixing” the enforcement actions which were the “traffic tickets” of the past.

Pasztor’s paragraphs explain that this new concept was born in Montreal (ICAO’s headquarters), have been embraced by EASA (although they are behind the US’s pace in the P121 implementation) and are not moving as briskly in other aviation sectors around the globe. He failed to note the anomalous “all deliberate speed” dragging American airports into the new SMS world.

No slick press release brought this story to the WSJ, rather the reporter attended a conference at which Ms. Gilligan of the FAA, Patrick Ky, her European counterpart and others detailed the transition to safety risk minimization, rather than civil penalty assessments. He learned the new gospel of aviation safety.

SMS safety concept

Margaret Gilligan, FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, and Patrick Ky, Executive Director of EASA.

On a slightly parallel track, he mentions that he FAA certification of General Aviation aircraft is moving into a new era. The old rules were “prescriptive” in nature and enumerated, detailed requirements; the new certification approach involves performance-based airworthiness standards. The new regulation would delete current weight- and propulsion-derived categories Part 23 with a single performance- and risk-based reviews  of airplanes of 19 passengers seats or less and with a maximum takeoff weight of  no greater 19,000 pounds.

Mr. Pasztor, however, fails to mention that the FAA is taking an inordinate amount of time to issue the final rules. It has been intimated that part of the delay may be attributable to the field’s lack of comfort with the innovative approach.

As to EASA’s investment in this new approach, Mr. Ky, its Executive Director made the following clarion message about his agency’s vision of the future of SMS as the regulatory format:

EASA’s Executive Director then uttered a very important statement about the future of his agency’s regulatory approach; here is the headline:

“We are not aviation lawyers…Regulation is not the goal. The goal is safety.”

Here are some other excerpts from the Ky vision of the future of European aviation regulation:

“’Ky said EASA is moving away from a legal approach to regulating to one that is focused on safety. The rulemaking branch was reshaped to team with the oversight branch for better understanding of how the     rules are implemented and what their effects are,’ he said. The regulators were also reminded to focus more on risk than on prescriptive rulemaking…

‘Underscoring the safety record of business aviation,’ Ky said ‘EASA should rely more on the sector’s mature safety management systems that are already in place, and partner on best practices, rather than prescribing those practices.’ “This is a fundamental change,” Ky said.

If one can read between the lines, Ky seems to be saying that over time, the FAA/airline SMS collaboration will evolve into rules fashioned to address each carrier’s capabilities and risk exposures.

The FAA’s transition to the SMS and cooperative regulatory scheme is not purely an intellectual/ philosophical/ public policy exercise, as the WSJ report would suggest. The “how we got there” story includes some realities forced on the FAA by Congress and a recognition that the old surveillance distribution of inspector resources no longer would/could work. Here is a brief recitation of the path to this new regime:

  1. In 2008 the House of Representatives, Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure Oversight and Investigations Hearing held hearing entitled “Critical Lapses in FAA Safety Oversight of Airlines: Abuses of Regulatory ‘Partnership Programs.” Most of the Members took the position that the first level FAA inspectors were right and their managers were wrong. Perhaps because the manager was removed, the field was empowered to ignore and occasionally contradict the guidance of their local supervisors and managers as well as the chain of command up to the Association Administrator for Flight Safety. The consequence of this highly visible reprimand by the Members was an institutional inability to issue national policies.
  1. Glacier-like process of the issuance of regulations – the cumulative impact of the basic requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act plus multiple collateral statutes (like a Small Business Impact Statement) require significant time to draft and review a proposal. Then reviews, both within the FAA (policy, economics, legal) and above it (DOT, OMB), cause additional  major delays. The gestation period from initial conceptualization to final implementation can consume as much as five to ten years. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the FAA to keep up with industry changes, the identification of new technical problems and new technology.
  1. For twenty or more years, the budget and staffing of the FAA have been reduced. Whether it is true or not, the internal perception is that the FAA’s capacity to regulate, following the modus operandi of the past, is less than its existing safety agenda. The assignment of inspectors, for example, to the P&W powerplants of one airline is no longer possible. Congress has sent the message that the FAA must do more with less.
  1. Consistency – the pattern of independent, inconsistent application of policy in the field was found by the OIG, GAO, industry and even an FAA ARC. That equates to different interpretations being applied to an airline depending on what ASI explained her/his view of the FARs as well as among airlines, on a macro level. This lack of consistency has subjected the Flight Standards organization to substantial criticism, to which senior management agreed.
  1. The press and the NTSB frequently criticized the FAA that it reacted to accidents; that their revisions to rules made it a tombstone organization. Upon reflection, FAA senior management decided that it needed to be more proactive in its approach. An initiative began to find techniques in which the regulator could “get out in front” of safety risks.
  1. ICAO and SMS—this UN organization decided that all civil aviation authorities should implement this state-of-the-art safety approach. Its basis is the analysis of meta data bases from shared airline information , extrapolating significant trends, assessing solutions, cooperative/consensus processes and quick implementation of preventative solutions. The cooperation element of SMS, which includes unions, the FAA and management, requires an open, trusting environment.
  1. The experience with SMS caused the FAA to realize that a punitive/enforcement tactic and a cooperative compliance approach were antithetical; so the Administrator issued a new Compliance Policy.
  1. The field, some of the same folks empowered by the 2008 Oversight and Investigation Hearing (#1 above), did not appear to agree with this new compliance approach.

 Now instead of waiting until major changes to the FARs must be subjected to the languorous NPRM process, the SMS teams can design and implement IMMEDIATE solutions.

→ Finding fault will be replaced with defining consensus.

 Proactive will reduce the need to be reactive.

FAA subject matter experts will be comfortable engaging in dialogue with the certificate holders about the intent of the FAR and then enter into a discussion of the best way to reduce risks. Confrontation and the ticket writing mentality will abate.

 The need to promulgate an endless list of new requirements will be obviated by the fact that the problem has been solved already.

→ “One size fits all” will be supplanted by the correction which will address your airline’s particular problems.

 Getting unnecessary advice from OST/OMB will become irrelevant and using statistical probabilities to anticipate the highest risk of your airline will be the rubric to higher safety,

SMS is the new normal. The old “punish them with civil penalties so the carriers will comply” is no longer operative, though the field still appears to be wed to the traffic cop ticket-writing mentality. There is no doubt that SMS’ data driven techniques are resulting in preventative action being jointly designed, faster development of unique solutions and implemented by each carrier on a schedule faster than a speeding NPRM. 

Thank you Mr. Pasztor, for informing your readers about the values and benefits of the SMS, collaborative safety regime. Dick Witkin would be proud!


ARTICLE: Airlines and Regulators Take New Approach: Working Together on Safety
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