Regulations to Create Integrity: What the FAA SMS Mandate is All About

Regulations to Create Integrity: What the FAA SMS Mandate is All About

  • April
  • 26
  • 2021
  • Erika Armstrong

Every professional pilot routinely has their integrity tested, whether they realize it or not. It is not necessarily following the rules that gives you integrity; it is the reflexive thought process when applying the rules to any given situation.

Some pilots constantly ride the edge of the regulations but can claim they are safe because they don't break them. Others consistently keep away from the edge. You have a choice to use the rules to justify your actions or use them to justify your decision to arrive later than expected, but it is not always easy to see the distinction. When you back up and look at the scope of a pilot's career, where do reflexive safety decisions come from? Do rules and regulations create integrity? The FAA is about to find out.

FAA Mandating SMS

There is an FAA rulemaking effort underway that would require Part 135 operators to develop, implement, and consistently use a Safety Management System (SMS). The Part 121 airlines have been required to use an SMS since 2015. For many Part 135/91 operators, they have been using an SMS, or the concept of a safety management system, for decades. For other flight departments, it is viewed as another burden of regulations to be complied with. Their philosophy is that if we abide by the rules, that is safe enough. The problem is that "safety" is a matter of opinion and open to interpretation.

Buckle up and come with me on a quick journey through an example of why an SMS system will put the power of safety back in your own hands and help create a culture of better decision making.

Not All Safety Is Created Equal

I have had the honor of flying Part 91 (corporate flight department), Part 135 (Charter, Air Ambulance), and Part 121 (international captain), so I've seen the stark contrast in safety culture, but I didn't realize it in the moment. It took working in different flight departments to realize there could be a difference. It is not something that is advertised but rather, it's the constant subtle nuances of behavior by EVERYONE in the company. It's old-fashioned peer pressure, but it trickles down from a company's management team. They set the tone and employees listen.

Part 91

My first role as a "professional pilot" was as a volunteer pilot for the Red Cross. Flying Part 91 by myself, I was welcome to go fly with one mile visibility and clear of clouds – so I did, single engine, in the winter, trying to stay out of icing conditions. Let's just say I learned my lesson and I'm glad I'm still here to write this article. What I did was completely unsafe, even though the rules said that I could do it.

The conundrum of aviation safety is that we begin with very few limitations, which creates an original mindset that we don't need rules to make decisions for us, but then ironically, as we gain experience, knowledge, and skills, the rules get layered and become stricter. This is because professional pilots carry passengers, but why does the exchange of money create different rules? Rules do not create integrity, but wise pilots know that the rules can be used to give you the power to say something is not safe. Sometimes, those same rules are used against you.

Old Part 135

Fast forward a few years. Now, I’m sitting in my first Basic Indoctrination ground school with a large flight department that flies passenger charter, hazmat cargo, and air ambulance (fixed wing). The Chief Pilot is reading, verbatim, the Ops Specs, GOM, and Part 135 out of the FAR AIM. The rules are the rules. The reality is that the rules do not matter as much as the person using them, so let's see how this translates into culture.

First, I am continuously asked to be a "team player" and ride the edge of duty time. Not just ride the edge but go over it and make the paperwork at least abide by the rules. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Do it for the team! Do it, and we'll assign you the really good trips because we know you'll get it done. Schedulers will call you first. You will be rewarded for knowing how to bend the edge of the regulations.

Next, the mechanic quietly tells me about the MEL he just signed off. It's not exactly fixed, the part is on the way, but he's pretty sure it'll be fine until then. Lots of little side conversations about future fixes, but here's what to look for, just in case. We know you're a great team player and can handle it.

Now, my favorite part: I'm sitting at an FBO in LAS, looking at my watch since my passengers are now four hours late and no one knows where they are. I call Dispatch and tell them I don't see how we'll get back within our duty time limitation.  Their response is, no problem, we have a fix for that! The next thing I know is that they have sent a Part 91 lease agreement to my passengers and magically, I'm now safe to fly them home. You can use the rules against someone too.

That same company, in an attempt to save a few dollars, had two fatal accidents, both of which on the surface were being operated within the rules. Digging deeper into each accident, you can see the crumbled structure of safety. The pressure to bend until it breaks. That is the true cost of not creating a safe culture in your flight department.

New Part 135

Now I'm sitting in a new Part 135 ground school, and Basic Indoctrination is not different from the previous company. The same rules and regulations, even the Ops Specs are basically the same; however, there is a new section in the GOM I haven't seen before. It says, "Safety Management System" and it explains the company's safety policy, how to deal with risk management, and how they promote safety (rather than offering rewards for overriding integrity). Management is fanatic about it and EVERYONE at the company must be onboard. It's peer pressure to do so. The results are fantastic.

When they call me for a trip, they go through the risk factors and ask me if I'm comfortable with them. What?! Really? You're asking my opinion? This simple act raises everyone's situational awareness and the team around me remains focused on the safety of the flight, not the invoice at the end.

Same rules, but it's a completely different mindset. The irony is that we still accomplish missions at the same rate of the company without an SMS, but our accidents and incidents stay at zero. NASA/ASRS are low because there is nothing to report. There is a positive work environment and even though we still work long hard hours, job satisfaction is higher.

Part 121

I flew for the airlines before SMS was mandated. Since it was the "airlines", I had the mindset that professionalism was a given at this level. Now that I had an entire ground support team to accomplish each flight, I assumed safety was behind each decision. But it wasn't the reality, and it begins subtly.

A "fuel burner" list is sent from the company, listing pilots and their fuel burn for each route. Shaming those who took on extra fuel for weather, honoring those who landed with minimum fuel remaining. What began as the desire to decrease fuel usage backfired as pilots tried to see just how much fuel they could burn to be at the top of the list.

Next came the memo saying that pilots would no longer get bottled water on their flights; that we were to drink the water from the aircraft water tanks. Water is a luxury. Next memo says you can't bid vacation time, that it will be assigned to you at their convenience. Constant complaints about MELs being signed off while the component and/or system is obviously not fixed. Two weeks' notice for a base change. You get the idea. Layers of lower standards creates a constant descent of moral which chips away at safety.

The Reality About A Safety Culture

The thing with a company's safety culture is that it doesn't matter if a few people follow it, everyone at the company needs to be onboard. Change will not happen just by saying you have to read the SMS. It will only happen when everyone lives by the doctrine and oversees their own safety decisions. Dispatchers/schedules, flight attendants, line service, maintenance, and administration must have a similar mindset of safety. An SMS puts the power of safety back in your own hands and gives you the authority to be safe. It creates a reflex of integrity and doing the right thing, even though you have a choice within the "rules".

Having a company SMS is about having a safety reflex that will break the sequence in the chain of errors in an accident. At its core, it's the acknowledgment that safety management is best accomplished by looking for trouble so that we can prevent it, not wait for it to happen. This is aviation. It has inherent risks, but we also have tools to manage those risks. Let us acknowledge that mistakes are inevitable, but if we keep them within the circle of safety, the cost of safety is priceless.

Don't Have An SMS And Don't Want To Create One?

You don't have to invent one! Advanced Aircrew Academy's SMS eLearning module is designed as an introduction to and overview of the SMS concept and how an SMS can enhance safety in a flight operation.

The module is organized around the four core elements of the SMS:

  1. Policy
  2. Risk Management
  3. Assurance
  4. Promotion

This training is appropriate for all flight operations personnel, not just aircrews.

Versions of the SMS module for Safety Managers, Pilots, Flight Attendants, Schedulers/Dispatchers, Line Service, and Admin are available. The module can also be used for one hour of credit towards IA Renewal. FAA Course Acceptance Number: C-IND-IM-160330-K-006-002.

The next step is easy. Click here for module information or go to, email, or call 843-557-1266.