POSITION & HOLD and editorial opinion

Taking a close look at the value of safety management systems

By Nick Sabatini
Associate Administrator Safety, FAA (retired)
ATP/Helo/CFII. Citation 500 series, Bell 206

SMS applications are not limited to large, complex organizations. Im­ple­mented properly, such systems can help any operator improve safety.

Corporate aviation has a good safety story to tell. This is particularly true of business jet operations, which include professional flightcrews, maintenance and organizational support with sophisticated aircraft and avionics, operating mostly in the IFR system to and from well equipped airports.

In short, it is an inherently safe profile, and the accident data reflects this. And yet corporate aviation could be even safer. Implementing a real safety management system (SMS) is one of the essential ways to make corporate aviation even safer.

I emphasize "real SMS" because SMS is more than a paper exercise—and, as regulators recognize, real SMS goes beyond minimal regulatory requirements. When implemented properly, SMS can help every corporate operator increase its safety margin.

A sense of scale

The good news is that both fatal and nonfatal accident rates in corporate aviation have improved steadily for several decades. The profile of corporate aviation that I outlined above—professional crews, high-end equipment, etc—helps to explain this persistent long-term improvement.

However, corporate aviation's solid performance often leads to comparisons with other segments of aviation that, at best, are not useful and, worse, invite misinterpretation or unwarranted complacency.

The most common is a comparison of corporate jets versus airline accident rates. Over the past 10 years (2002–11), overall accident rates for Part 121 operators have been about 20% higher than those of corporate operators of US-registered jets. Therefore, the reasoning goes, corporate jet operators have a better safety record than the airlines.

However, this seemingly straightforward comparison obscures major differences in the accident mix of each segment and thus ignores major differences in the level of risk assumed by travelers.

For example, in the past decade, 2/3 of all airline accidents involved events that pose little or no risk to occupants, such as injuries during precautionary evacuations, miscellaneous onboard mishaps and, especially, ramp accidents and turbulence.

While these events can and do occur in corporate aviation, they account for relatively few bizjet accidents. Consequently, if we consider only accidents that impose at least some meaningful risk on all occupants, the airlines suddenly enjoy a 2-to-1 safety advantage.

In a similar comparison of fatal accidents, the airline advantage approaches 5 to 1. Yet 5 times "almost zero" still produces a corporate fatal accident rate for corporate jet operators that approaches zero.

The real finding here should be that the airlines and the corporate jet sector are both very safe and getting safer all the time, with historically low fatal accident rates in recent years in both sectors.

By my count, using the NTSB and FAA definition of corporate aviation, over the past 10 years (2002–11), US corporate jet operators had a total of 29 accidents, including turbulence and the like, and 5 fatal accidents. That is 1 fatal corporate jet accident about every 4 million flight hours in 10 years. For the past 5 years, the rate has been about 1 every 5 million hours.

Corporate jet operators really are as safe as anyone else in aviation if they have good equipment, maintenance, procedures and so on. To make this record even better, we first need to understand what we see when things go wrong.

Of the 29 corporate jet accidents referred to above, runway excursions on landing—mostly overruns—accounted for 10 non-fatal accidents. Runway excursions on landing tend not to be highly lethal. However, they occur frequently enough that they pose one of the larger areas of fatal risk remaining in the system.

The next most common category is loss of control in flight, whether on approach, on climbout or enroute. Loss of control in flight accounted for 6 corporate jet accidents between 2002 and 2011 in the US, but accounted for all 5 fatal accidents.

Many of the factors that explain runway excursions on landing and loss of control in flight are also present in other accident categories that impose meaningful risk. Common issues involve unstable approaches, failures in flight monitoring, failure to follow (or run) checklists, missed callouts and failure to go around.

Perhaps the most universal issue we see among these cases involves standard operating procedures (SOPs). This is because, at some level, they address all the issues I just mentioned. If your operation has SOPs in place, are they good ones?

Much of the risk that remains in the system can be explained by factors that are well understood. But the bottom line is that the safety record in corporate jet operations is extremely good. Much like airline safety, business jet safety has reached a level at which we need an intellectual shift if meaningful improvements are to continue. SMS offers us a managerial and operational structure for making that shift.

SMS examined

Pilots follow preflight checklists scrupulously. All aspects of corporate flight department operations need to be subject to the same stringent care and attention, and an SMS will help achieve that goal.

Corporate SMS assumes that the operator is the entity most responsible for safety and best positioned to ensure the safest operation possible. This requires more than compliance with minimal regulations.

Now, if corporate jet operations are as safe as I suggest, why should we invest money and other resources in SMS? Let's put the matter in perspective.

SMS is the continuing evolution of risk management—and we all know that this industry has been in the risk management business since Kitty Hawk. The lessons learned during the first century of flight have led to a body of regulations (FARs) that require compliance by everyone and benefit everyone in the industry. Our investigation of past accidents has led us to introduce technology to prevent similar accidents occurring.

In addition to technological advances, we've established a level of safety performance such that, at least in the US, we no longer see common cause accidents. When they do occur, they are rare and they are random.


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