ExpressJet reaps benefits of safety management systems

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Atlanta-based regional ExpressJet foresees exiting from Level 2 of safety management systems (SMS) by the first quarter of 2013, says Brad Sheehan, ExpressJet's director of safety, security and compliance.

He was speaking at the Flightglobal Safety in Aviation North America conference on 5 November.

The US Federal Aviation Administration framework for the SMS implementation concept includes four levels. The second level is a reactive phase, when an operator creates a safety risk management system based on understood hazards. The SMS framework in the US is not mandatory for commercial operators. However, the agency has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that requires SMS implementation for Part 121 operators and this could start affecting airlines as early as next year.

The carrier's SMS programme started under Atlantic Southeast Airlines in 2010, shortly before the airline announced it would merge with ExpressJet, says Sheehan, who oversaw safety procedures as the two airlines aligned. Since then, ExpressJet has been focused on creating an environment that encourages employees to report safety issues and management of flight operations data it extracts from aircraft.

The airline operates a fleet of more than 400 Embraer ERJ-135 and -145, and Bombardier CRJ-200, -700 and -900 regional aircraft. The carrier has about 600 safety reports per month coming in from employees, many of which are from pilots providing information under the Aviation Safety Action Programme with the US FAA.

SMS does come at a cost, even though Sheehan says it is a "huge advantage" for regional airlines that choose to implement it, as it can help them on fixed budgets control expenses. However, he says that for the SMS to work, management must think of safety as a value rather than a priority and reward people for their behaviours while doing tasks, rather than just the final outcome of their efforts. Part of this is learning about how employees make decisions as human beings - rather than as pilots or mechanics - and implementing a safety culture that is flexible.

"We're trying to get smarter at predicting how humans behave," he says.

Through analysis, flight data help airlines tell employees how they can make better decisions. One of the ways ExpressJet has been able to use the data to its advantage is by monitoring the unstabilised approach rate for its fleet, which used to sit at about 4.5% of flights prior to the third quarter of 2011. By using available flight data, ExpressJet was able to cut this unstabilised approach rate by 2 percentage points to about 2.5%, which carries through to today. The airline achieved this by configuring the Bombardier regional aircraft for earlier landing to increase likelihood that the aircraft would be at a stable approach at 500ft (152m).

Every aircraft in the ExpressJet fleet produces flight recorder data, however, about 71% of its fleet uses quick access recorder cards that operators can use to download flight data to a hand-held device in about 10 minutes for each aircraft. The operator will increase that number with new readers it plans to receive next year for its older Embraer regional jets, which do not have this capability. The airline routinely pulls out just under 50% of data in its fleet compliant with the Flight Operational Quality Assurance programme, which operators can implement to reduce safety risks.