A safety management system (SMS) is a systematic approach to managing safety, including the necessary organisational structures, accountabilities, policies and procedures (definition from ICAO annex 19).

In practice this means that an organisation that has a safety management system considers the safety implications of what is does and takes action to manage the associated risks. Every SMS is different but it’s generally accepted that there should be four components to an effective safety management system:

  1. Safety policy and objectives. This is a statement about what the organisation is trying to achieve in terms of safety.

  2. Safety risk management. This is the ‘heart’ of the SMS. The organisation will have processes to evaluate safety risks and to control them.

  3. Safety assurance. There has to be some means of measuring whether the organisation is achieving its safety objectives. This is safety assurance.

  4. Safety promotion. In order to make the SMS work the people involved need to understand the system.

To help you understand the importance of safety management a good analogy is financial management. All organisations need some kind of financial management. Successful organisations will have clear financial objectives, a process for evaluating the financial impact of different activities and some means of measuring whether their financial objectives are being met. The organisation will make sure that people involved understand the financial objectives and how to they’re going to be achieved; these are pretty much the same as the four components of a good SMS, but SMS relates these components to safety rather than money.

Who has to have an SMS

ICAO sets the standards for international aviation. ICAO standards require that the following organisations should have SMS:

  • International commercial air transport operators of aeroplanes and helicopters (i.e. airlines and charter companies);

  • Professional pilot-training organisations that operate aircraft (i.e. flying schools);

  • Maintenance organisations that service aeroplanes and helicopters involved in international air transport;

  • Organisations that design or manufacture aircraft;

  • Air traffic control providers;

  • Airports;

  • Non-commercial operators of large/jet aeroplanes.

There should also be safety management at a state level. ICAO specifies that each country should have a ‘state safety programme’ (SSP). This SSP should have the same four components as an SMS and should ensure that organisations in the country implement their own SMS. States are also obliged to have a safety oversight system (see National Aviation Authorities).

What's the situation in Europe

European regulations are aligned with ICAO but with some important differences. If you look in the European regulations then you won’t find any mention of ‘safety management’ or ‘SMS’. These regulations take a slightly different approach and see safety management as part of the overall management system. The regulations stipulate the requirements for an operator’s management system, including “the identification of aviation safety hazards entailed by the activities of the operator, their evaluation and the management of associated risks, including taking actions to mitigate the risk and verify their effectiveness”.

The European approach is sensible because safety management can’t be separated from the other management functions of a business any more than financial management can.

European regulations require the following organisations to have a management system that includes safety management:

  • All professional pilot training organisations regardless of whether they operate aircraft;

  • Commercial air transport operators (e.g. airlines and charter companies);

  • Non-commercial operators of complex aircraft (i.e. business jets);

  • Air Traffic Control providers;

  • Airports.

Flying schools that only train for non-professional licences can adopt a simplified version of the requirements (see Declared Training Organisations). Rules for aircraft designers, manufacturers and maintenance organisations are still under development.

For more information on the European requirements see management system requirements.

How do we go about implementing SMS?

First of all if somebody offers to sell you a ‘safety management system’ then they don’t know what they’re talking about. SMS can make use of tools, such as computer software, but buying the software doesn’t give you an SMS any more than buying a word-processor will make you a bestselling author.

Implementing SMS requires you to change the way that your organisation does business. It’s a major project and needs to be managed as such. You’ll need a project manager who understands the requirements and who can plan out the whole project, but more importantly you’ll need the top management of the organisation to believe that SMS is going to be good for the business. Without this you’ll just end up with more costs, more bureaucracy and no benefits. A good first step would be a seminar for your senior managers explaining the requirements of SMS and the benefits for the organisation.

We prefer to follow the European model of an integrated management system (including processes for assessing and managing safety risks) rather than ‘stand-alone’ SMS. We think the whole of your organisation will benefit from the wider management system principles of clearly defined lines of responsibility and accountability; trained, competent personnel; documentation of all key processes and compliance monitoring.

How long does it take to implement SMS?

ICAO guidance on Safety Management Systems (document 9859) suggests a four-stage approach to SMS implementation over a time span of five years. While development of a fully-effective SMS is a multi-year project we believe that organisations can update their management systems and start to see safety benefits much more quickly than this.

The time taken will vary according to the complexity of the operation. If your operation is run by two guys in a porta-cabin on the edge of an airfield then the main elements of a better management system could be in place in a couple of months. For a more complex operation, like a medium-sized airline or flight school, six-months to a year is a more realistic objective. Once the main components are in place then you’ll start gathering data and making risk assessments. As you gather more data and assess more risks the better your decisions will be, which is why we say that a ‘fully effective’ management system will take several years.

Next steps.

The consultants at Mckechnie Aviation have experience of implementing SMS in a number of different organisations. We suggest that the first step should be a briefing for senior management where we can explain the requirements, the benefits and the implementation process. We can then work with you to deliver an SMS that meets the needs of your business.