NTSB should shift its vocabulary to SMS’s more problem-solving words

ntsb faa sms
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The National Transportation Safety Board is charged with investigating aviation accidents. Over the years, its staff has developed a methodology for both finding the facts and ascribing “probable cause” in their documentation. While those historic terms and techniques have proven to be highly effective, the Board should reconsider its approach—because it has urged that the FAA and the airlines adopt a new method for achieving the highest levels of safety.

The new approach, Safety Management Systems, does not focus on finding fault; in fact it avoids the pejorative connotations of that examination. Instead SMS uses data and facts to try to identify solutions which rectify the error and implement practical “fixes” without a lengthy regulatory review.

ntsb faa sms

The below opinion reflects a series of stories in the Alaska Dispatch News about the NTSB reports on two multiple-fatality accidents in St. Mary’s (2013) and Kwethluk (2014). Both aircraft were operated by Hageland Aviation as part of the family of airlines known previously as Era Alaska and now Ravn Alaska. The point of the author’s commentary, based on review of the Board’s fact statement, is that the companies involved failed in their regulatory compliance and that the FAA provided a deficient number of personnel for surveillance of the “the largest small commuter airline in the United States” {that is a direct quote}.

The recitation of the operations of the airline, the “bush pilot” mentality of their crews, a less than ideal operating environment and other serious problems is a serious indictment of the companies. The story expresses the frustration of the local FAA with the breadth of their responsibilities and the implied recalcitrance of senior management to provide more personnel resources. The vocabulary and the focus points of the NTSB critique reflect the practices in effect in 2013 and 2014, but its analysis tends to be reactive rather than proactive.

ntsb faa sms

The NTSB could bring a different, even more objective, perspective to the SMS methodology. In these Alaska cases, for example, it appears that the Board identified the relationship between the certificate holder and the FAA District Office surveilling that airline as a problem.

ntsb faa sms

An SMS contribution might specify whether more staff or a greater emphasis on the training of the pilot (and/or some other aspect of their review) would be more effective at solving the problem. In fact, the FAA’s most recent iteration of its more proactive approach to aviation safety, the Safety Assurance System, incorporates a look at certificate management as a major component. Insights as to how that regulator-regulated relationship might be strengthened would now be appropriate in a final NTSB decision.

While finding probable cause is statutorily required, the Board would usefully assist the SMS/SAS process by suggesting probable solutions based on its investigation and knowledge of the facts. The NTSB was an advocate of SMS/SAS; it can further that process by “participating” through its views about what might address the issues identified.

 

OPINION: FAA’s struggles in Alaska a problem for everyone who flies here
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