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Airline safety management systems need the right people with the right mindset

Dec 13th 2017
The SMS Culture dilemma

Yet the fly in the ointment remains the nature of how seriously people in organisations take the issue of safety management, and indeed, how the organisation views perpetrators of risk related incidents. It is here that both culture and attitude play a key role in how effective a safety management system (SMS) can be.

Train crashes, space shuttle accidents and oil refinery fires all have very different physical causes. But, at the organisational and cultural levels, the root causes are surprisingly, and distressingly, similar. Mindless cost cutting, incentive schemes that divert attention from safe operations, failure to consider the safety implications of organisational [sic] changes – all these are regularly found to have contributed to major accidents.

- Hopkins, 2009, p. xi

Causes of aviation incidents

Human factors in aviation account for between 70% and 85% of all incidents. However, it was realised that other issues influenced pilot performance as well as just “pilot error”. Such effects include:

  • Organisation cost cutting
  • Redundancy programs
  • Human resource constraints
  • Lack of skill and expertise / training programmes
  • Entrenched attitude ‘We have always done it this way’
  • Belligerence ‘You never trust management’
  • Perceived and actual ‘management’ intimidation


So what approaches have been adopted?

Interestingly no one approach is correct, although there are some behaviours that remain absolutely preeminent in the good use of SMS. However an observation by William R. Voss (past CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation) does indicate that one role in implementing and following a good SMS is to reconfigure how the organisation is managed:

Go back to last year’s budget and see if you can find one single instance where information from your SMS caused you to spend money differently to how you had planned. If you cannot find an example of that in your operation you either have an extraordinarily brilliant budgeting process or your SMS is not delivering. I would bet on the latter.

Ask yourself who attended the last risk assessment meeting. Risk should be treated as an enterprise issue and it is important that any business embraces risk based concepts across the entire organisation.


Learn about the essential features a safety management system needs to have according to ICAO annex guidelines to improve an airline's safety culture. Download the insight for free today.


Image by Den Belitsky