Mar 11, 2019

The Role of Safety Management Systems in Aviation

Flying as a mode of transportation has its risks. After all, air travel means you'll be sitting in a winged tube that tears through the sky at 600 miles per hour, thousands of feet above solid ground. So there's good reason that the aviation industry is heavily regulated and requires diligent processes in place.

Commercial aviation has a safety record which surpasses other modes of public transport. However, you'd be surprised to know that in the past aviation safety improvement was mostly done after the fact. Any time an accident took place, only then was the cause investigated, and careful measures put in place to prevent the same thing from happening again. It’s not a very proactive approach considering there's so much risk involved!  

To counter this, the concept of safety management systems in aviation emerged.

Safety Management Systems in aviation explained

A safety management system (or SMS) is a group of established, organization-wide processes that contribute towards effective risk-based decision making. In simpler words, having an SMS in place allows employees to make better and safer decisions when it comes to their jobs.

The main goal of an SMS is to implement a structured management plan to manage safety risks in a work environment. It promotes a culture of total safety and encourages everyone in an organization to think, behave, and act with complete safety in mind.

For the aviation industry, an SMS allows every operator and product/service provider to create a systematic way to categorize hazards and manage risks effectually. It can also be applied to different sectors, allowing operators to integrate their diverse safety activities into a single coherent system. By identifying an operator’s role in accident prevention, a safety management system provides:

  • A structured means of safety risk management decision making.

  • A means of demonstrating safety management capability before system failures occur.

  • Enhanced confidence in risk controls though structured safety assurance processes.

  • A powerful interface for knowledge sharing between regulator and certificate holder.

  • A safety promotion framework to support a sound safety culture.

Organizations within the aviation industry are becoming increasingly dependent on safety management systems, which are positively influencing the way employees perform their jobs. Many also use safety management software to make implementing an SMS easier with fewer points of friction.

Where did the SMS concept come from?


Safety management systems are not unique to the aviation industry.

In fact, they are recognized by many other industries, including the railway and maritime sectors. The regulatory authorities for these industries have developed safety management systems that are specific to their own industry standards and requirements. For example, the railway sector in Canada first introduced an SMS in the 1940s and used it to promote operational improvements by enhancing safety culture and better managing safety risks. Today, Canada manages one of the largest railway networks in the world, and has been able to operate with as few as 272 reported rail incidents as of 2017 (down from 325 accidents in 2016). This is due to vigorous safety systems in place.

To reap the same benefits, and promote safer operations, Transport Canada made it mandatory in 2008 and 2009 for the aviation industry to put safety management systems in place. They are an additional layer of protection and help to save lives.

Total safety culture created by SMS in aviation  

Some groups within the aviation industry have started to report the many benefits of having a safety management system in place. After all, investing in a safety system makes good business sense—it reduces the number of accidents, decreasing any financial costs associated with them. It also enhances a safe work environment, attracting and retaining more staff and customers. 

Primarily, the goal of an SMS is to maximize opportunities to continuously improve the overall safety of an organization. For aviation companies, this means they are able to take essentially a prediction-based management approach to controlling risk.

A safety management system in aviation is considered the foundation of an organization's safety efforts and works as a practical means of connecting other safety systems. It also offers an organized way to examine all the different safety-related processes.

Having an SMS in place can benefit an organization by:

  • Offering a more informed decision-making process.

  • Improving safety by minimizing the risk of accidents.  

  • Providing for better resource allocation that will result in increased efficiencies and reduced costs.  

  • Establishing a corporate culture.

  • Promoting corporate due diligence.

With a strongly executed SMS, groups in the aviation industry can experience better compliance with safety controls and regulations that in turn minimize negative outcomes of an event. Safety systems also allow employees and passengers to recognize potential hazards that may compromise their health and safety.

A safety management system can have positive impacts on staff by generating trust and enhanced morale which leads to better performance. And most importantly, it can help an organization to prevent catastrophic accidents, making it safer and therefore attracting more clients.