United’s SMS discipline focused pilots on a potential problem identified by data and to be fixed before it gets worse

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Have you noticed that aviation safety writers use fewer verbs of the past tense? For many years, journalists punctuated their articles with words like “tombstone” and “reaction” and the story line looked primarily to the past. As with the below linked story about United Airlines, the focus is on the future; why?

Based on encouragement from ICAO and by recent FAA regulations, United and other US carriers have implemented the demanding, pervasive discipline know as Safety Management System. The underlying foundation is the collection of every bit of relevant data which might provide insight as to what may be wrong BEFORE there is an accident, what priority should be assigned to addressing the issue and how this anticipated problem might be preventatively and systematically cured.

Many of those figures are macro in nature and may involve an isolated incident. The numbers are then analyzed to determine their statistical relevance and distinguish among “problems” of no predictive value and those which signify that the “fault” is likely to be repeated.

While numbers are the basis for review, the process of a 360° assessment is where reasonable, practical solutions are created. SMS established that the team assigned to “fix” the defined problem should not be confined to, for example mechanics for a maintenance error or to pilots for a flying aberration, but should include folks from all available disciplines within the company. The SMS roster includes people from personnel (when an airline hires, should a criteria be included to avoid a re-occurrence), finance (cost/benefit analysis expertise), fleet planning (the next airplane will include __?__ system), the airport line personnel , etc. This comprehensive approach has contributed several “out of the box” solutions.

Much more could be said of the virtues of SMS, but a powerful demonstration of the value of this form of safety culture is well documented by the UA letter to its pilots. The airline issued the following telling statement:

“’As part of our commitment to safety, we constantly monitor flight operations data and regularly communicate the findings with our pilots,’ the statement read. ‘Our proactive approach to safety aligns with the FAA’s Safety Management System and enables us to recognize potential issues and adjust our actions to further ensure the safety of our customers and coworkers.’” [emphasis added]

The Senior Vice President of Flight Operations and the Vice President of Safety sent a letter to all of the airlines pilots, which in part said:

“We know this is a brutally honest message and the tendency may be to rationalize why compliance is not occurring in some areas. Bottom line: United is at a critical juncture in its history and we as aviators must adhere to the policies and procedures outlined in the Flight Manuals, FOM, WOM and ALPA Code of Ethics. Reviewing, understanding, and complying with the guidance in company manuals is imperative to returning ourselves, our fellow crewmembers and passengers to their families safely. This is our top priority and greatest responsibility, and we appreciate in advance your continued commitment and cooperation.”

This is the sort of forward looking counsel which derives from SMS. The data and process identified something which needed to be done BEFORE a problem emerges.

Acronyms used (in order):

ICAO: International Civil Aviation Organization

FAA: Federal Aviation Administration

SMS: Safety Management System

UA: United Airlines

FOM: Flight Operations Manual

WOM: ???

ALPA: Air Line Pilots Association

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