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Legal Eagle: Stepping up with SMS

Many Canadian aviation firms profess to have a bona fide safety management system (SMS) in place at their organization, but I’m not convinced that’s always the case.


March 6, 2013
By Neil J. MacDonald

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Many Canadian aviation firms profess to have a bona fide safety management system (SMS) in place at their organization, but I’m not convinced that’s always the case. To wit, an SMS is not a monthly meeting, nor is it posters on the wall. SMS is, in fact, a culture; it is a mindset. It comes from the top down and from the ground up. SMS meets in the middle and is the stew that everything in your organization marinates in.

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If you do not believe in the idea of SMS as a holistic entity embracing your organization, then you do not have a proper SMS program.


 

If you do not believe in the idea of SMS as a holistic entity embracing your organization, then you do not have a proper SMS program, regardless of how many times your operations manual says you do.

It’s also worth noting that if you do not have an SMS program, it could be costing you money. Maybe not today, but it may well do so in the future.

“If you think safety is expensive – try an accident.” This saying is so well known to us in the aviation industry, yet we ask ourselves why it is not always followed in practice. The answer may be that we are not having very many accidents these days.

The total number of accidents and incidents has been on a steady decline for well over the past decade, experts say. The 10-year average for accidents in Canada, or accidents involving Canadian aircraft, was 307 occurrences. There was a step down of occurrences in each of 2009, 2010, and 2011 (last full year of reporting). Last year’s number appears to be lower again still.
Private aircraft accidents account for more than twice the average of commercial accidents, although they too are on the decline over the same reporting period. It is important to note that only those entities involved in commercial operations will be required to have an SMS program in place by 2015.

The aviation industry itself has the overall responsibility for aviation safety. Transport Canada as the regulator, is tasked with ensuring industry has effective systems in place to manage safety.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) requires that regulators monitor companies with respect to SMS once every 12 months. This is not that practical in Canada due to the (large) size of our industry and the (small) size of Transport Canada’s budget.

ICAO estimates a four per cent increase in air traffic in North America year after year over the next dozen years, suggesting a possible doubling of the current amount. Interestingly, Transport Canada does not expect any significant increase in its current budget over that same period!

Transport Canada effectively does much the same risk assessment on companies as it asks companies to perform on themselves – focus on the areas that display a higher risk for regulatory non-compliance.

There are approximately 34,000 aircraft registered in Canada, with more than 5,000 companies authorized to operate. Transport Canada was only able to inspect roughly 30 per cent of the organizations in 2010-11. This is well short of their stated goals, and potentially allows for a high degree of non-compliance within the industry.

The Auditor General of Canada found that even within those organizations inspected, there was some confusion on the part of the inspectors as to what they should be looking for or at. Part of this confusion may well have been because only 40 per cent of inspectors had been trained on the new surveillance methodology by that time.

According to the Transportation Safety Board website, “Watchlist,” Transport Canada does not provide proper oversight on those carriers it requires to have an SMS, and while at the same time does not require smaller operators to have a system in place.
The Auditor General tends to agree. While it found that Transport Canada has “implemented a suitable regulatory framework for civil aviation safety” it is “…not adequately managing the risks associated with its civil aviation oversight.” Transport Canada is working hard on making the appropriate changes.

I believe it’s time we remind ourselves that we in the aviation industry have the overall responsibility for aviation safety. We should not need to wait for Transport Canada to inspect us before we act on implementing a proper safety management system.

It’s a beginning, and a way to demonstrate your commitment to the safety management system philosophy. Just make sure they are not the only things you are doing!


This is Neil MacDonald’s last column for Wings after several years of offering readers ironclad legal advice. We wish to thank Neil for his efforts and wish him all the best in his future endeavours.