Alaska Airlines SMS Program
FAA’s Assessment & the Impact of SMS Standards
The FAA recently accepted the SMS program developed for Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air. Other airlines have reached the same safety milestone; so the announcement did not receive significant press coverage. Such an achievement is really remarkable and reflects a 5 year cooperative project by the carrier and the FAA.
A little history will add to the context of the FAA assessment that the SMS status met the relevant standards.
- The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) amended Annex 6 part, March 2006, as a standard for member states mandating the implementation of SMSs for their respective airlines. ICAO then published Annex 19 on SMS in 2013 as a Standards and Recommended Practices.
- Congress enacted the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 (L. 111-216, August 1, 2010), which directed the FAA to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking within 90 days of enactment, and a final SMS rule by July 30, 2012.
- The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended the FAA pursue rulemaking to require all US carriers to implement an SMS program.
- The FAA issued SMS guidance in 2008 and then a final rule, published on January 8, 2015, requiring each Part 121 certificate holder to develop and implement a Safety Management System. A new 14 CFR part 5 was added creating the general framework on which every airline must create to fit its organization and the needs of its operations/people.
In response to this announcement the Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, was quoted as saying:
“Aviation is incredibly safe, but continued growth means that we must be proactive and smart about how we use safety data to detect and mitigate risk…SMS gives airlines the tools they need to further reduce risk in commercial aviation.”
FAA Administrator Huerta added:
“Our commercial aviation industry is a world-leader and model for risk mitigation and I’m proud that so many airlines have embraced the SMS culture voluntarily. Now the FAA and the air carrier industry are taking the next step…The FAA’s workforce also is transitioning to a proactive, risk-based culture so we can effectively target our esources.”
Importantly, those thoughts were reflected by the Alaska senior management team upon learning of the FAA’s action:
“Alaska and Horizon employees should feel proud to know that their airlines are leading the industry with their safety programs,” said Ben Minicucci, president and COO of Alaska Airlines. “Our systematic approach involved engineering safety into our culture and every part of our business. Not only are our combined 15,600 employees trained on safety standards, they are empowered to stop the operation if they have a safety concern.”
“Our SMS helped us show how frontline employees are the bedrock of safety improvements,” said David Campbell, Horizon Air president and CEO. “Our employees know that they are empowered to stop the operation any time to correct a safety concern.”
“SMS will be a big part of our future,” said Tom Nunn, the airlines’ vice president of safety. “It will help us sustain and build on the efforts we’ve made in the last five years and will allow us to continue to improve on them in the future.”
Those are significant statements; for this state-of-the-art safety discipline depends on the company-wide commitment to SMS principles and daily awareness to bring the reduction of risk which its data-driven, remedially focused methodology is designed to develop. SMS is likely to fail if only those in the cockpit, on the hangar floor and at gateside adopt the approach; equally injurious would be executives who only professed their allegiance to a safety culture rather devoting time and attention to the SMS process.
Alaska has the sorts of personnel championing this attitude, for example:
Tom Nunn, VP of Safety
Nunn joined the company in 2008 with many years of safety experience. At Lynx Aviation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Frontier Airlines Holdings, he served as president and chief operating officer since September 2006. He built the regional airline from the ground up and hired a senior leadership team that provides ongoing direction for the organization.
Nunn also served as vice president and director of Frontier Airlines’ aviation safety and security program from 2001 to 2006, managing all aspects of airline safety, security and regulatory compliance. In this role, he developed a safety program to support the airline’s rapid growth and need for heightened security following Sept. 11.
Before joining Frontier, Nunn worked at Northwest Airlines for 18 years, serving as director of operations analysis and emergency management. He developed an emergency response program and provided direction on corporate policy and strategy for all areas of crisis management. Nunn also served as manager of flight dispatch, directing 135 flight dispatchers, reviewing incidents and taking corrective action.
Nunn began his career as a Marine providing security detail to the United States Capitol and White House during President Jimmy Carter’s administration. Nunn eventually joined Western Airlines, where he worked in maintenance line service. He is also a private pilot with more than 3,000 hours of flight time.
Nunn holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and computer science with a minor in aviation management from Minnesota State University. He attended the Aviation Training Institute in Minneapolis as well as the University of Southern California Aviation Safety Program in Los Angeles.
Molly Hughes, Director of Safety Assurance at Alaska Airlines; leading the Safety Management Systems programs for Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air, the first two carriers to have an SMS fully validated by the FAA.
- Senior Manager, Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) and Flight Technical Data, United Airlines
- Senior Manager, Line Operations Safety Assessment (LOSA), United Airlines
- Senior Analyst, Quality Assurance, United Airlines
- Senior Staff Representative, Planeside Technology Planning, United Airlines
- Senior Staff Analyst, Cargo Automation, United Airlines
- Margin Coordinator, North America Cargo, KLM Cargo
- Senior Staff Representative, Customer Service Planning, United Airlines
- Airport Operations Supervisor, Customer Service, United Airlines
- Airport Operations Supervisor, Ramp Service, United Airlines
Those resumes are quintessential examples of the experiences needed to make SMS a reality. Their combined strengths facilitate the communication of its gospel from the executive suite to the daily workplace. Both Mr. Nunn and Ms. Hughes can challenge SMS participants to dig more deeply to develop real world solutions posed and to create processes/procedures that will work throughout the airline. Without that breadth and depth of past work, the SMS dialogue could avoid facing the real sources of problem and to ignore the adoption of practical answers.
In 2015, the Wall Street Journal ranked Alaska the best airline in the United States for the second consecutive year. That award was based on that the airline achieved the best performance as measured by on-time arrivals and fewest extreme flight delays and customer complaints. The 2014 citation might include safety.
Airlines neither do nor should advertise on the basis of safety. Explaining the impact of SMS points would reveal the positive upside.