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SMS: Getting ahead of the curve, and staying there

By Kathy Fox,
Board MemberTransportation Safety Board of Canada

A version of this article was published in French in the spring 2013 edition of Air Magazine.

Many companies claim safety is their top priority, even when their daily focus may really be the bottom line. But it's important to recognize that accidents can be just as costly, if not more. Litigation fees, loss of business or reputation, staff turnover, and a loss of competitive advantage—all of these can have a negative financial impact.

The good news is that "profits" and "safety" don't need to be on opposite sides of the ledger.

Safety management systems (SMS) are one way to help organizations get ahead of the performance curve—and stay ahead.

Generally speaking, an SMS is a formalized framework for integrating safety into all levels of an organization's daily operations—including all the necessary organizational structures, accountabilities, policies and procedures. Implemented properly, SMS helps companies to identify hazards in advance. This in turn lets management assess them, and then develop and follow processes and procedures to prevent those risks from leading to accidents.

Canada's large commercial carriers have been required to have an SMS since 2005. That means, for almost a decade now, every time a passenger boards one of these flights—whether it's a seven-hour flight from Vancouver to St. John's, or a quick 55-minute hop from Montréal to Quebec City—they can be confident that the airline has a detailed system in place to find trouble before trouble finds them.

Many other Canadian operators, however, aren't required to have an SMS. This includes companies that do aerial work or provide air taxi or commuter servicesFootnote 1 — a group that, together, incurred 91 % of commercial aircraft accidents and 93 % of commercial fatalities from 2002 to 2011. Unfortunately, these are also the companies flying under some of the most challenging conditions, the ones making daily runs to smaller communities, servicing more remote airports where there is often less infrastructure. Often they're in small turboprop or piston airplanes, which may be equipped with less-sophisticated navigation and warning systems.

Last summer, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) released its report into one of these occurrences—the 2010 crash of a Beechcraft A100 King Air, which was making an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight from Québec to Sept-Îles Footnote 2 Our investigation revealed that the company's poor safety culture had contributed to the acceptance of numerous unsafe practices, some of them related to economic considerations that introduced significant safety risks.

Would a robust, properly functioning SMS have flagged all these concerns ahead of time? It's impossible to say. Nor is it fair to say that every operator that flies without an SMS is headed for turbulence—only that they're not being required to use a tool that has been proven to be effective. After all, there's a reason why the International Civil Aviation Organization has led the charge and why Transport Canada (TC) has required it for the large carriers: because they recognize that strict compliance with regulations is not sufficient in and of itself to reduce the risk of accidents.

That's exactly the reason the TSB has placed the issue of SMS on its safety Watchlist. First released in 2010, and then updated last year, the Watchlist highlights the nine issues posing the greatest risk to Canada's transportation system. With respect to SMS, we'd like to see its adoption by all air operators—and for TC to effectively monitor the integration of SMS practices into day-to-day operations.

So far, however, that kind of broader implementation has been delayed, which begs the question: what happens in the interim? After all, it's not illegal for these smaller operators not to have an SMS. And there are those who suggest that if something isn't required, why bother implementing it, especially if there's an associated cost. These are tough economic times, remember?

Bill Voss, the CEO of Flight Safety Foundation, addressed precisely this point in a July 2012 article in AeroSafety World: "The gap between what is legal and what is safe," he wrote, "already is large, and it will get bigger."

In other words, companies that wait for the regulator to tell them what to do may be waiting for a long time. Their customers, meanwhile, are becoming explicit about their own expectations for safety, and voting with their wallets. It's almost Darwinian: "survival of the fittest" becomes "survival of the company with the best safety and efficiency record." And that's just as true in Quebec City or Sept-Îles as it is for someone flying into the oil fields off Newfoundland and Labrador or in the Canadian Arctic.

It's an attitude that makes good sense, too—for safety and for business. Operators who are proactive will thrive, while those who delay will forever remain behind the curve when it comes to safety. Until that happens, though—until all air operators have adopted SMS, and until TC helps them make the most of this valuable tool—the TSB will continue to learn from our ongoing investigations, pushing for change, and safer flying, for all Canadians.