FAA releases proposed SMS rule for part 121 carriers

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In compliance with a recent Congressional mandate, FAA on 5 November plans to release a proposed rule requiring part 121 operators, which include commercial air carriers, to develop a safety management system.

Safety management systems entail a set of business processes and management tools to examine data from everyday operations, isolate trends that could be precursors to incidents or accidents and develop appropriate risk mitigation strategies, says FAA.

The SMS rule was mandated in the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 that took effect on 1 August. The law also requires FAA to mandate that operators develop fatigue management plans, and that the agency issue a final rule on pilot fatigue by 1 August 2011.

Origins of the mandates trace back to the February 2009 crash of a Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 and the subsequent investigation that drew scrutiny of Colgan's monitoring of crew practices related to fatigue management.

FAA states that SMS plans need four key components - safety policy, safey risk management, safety assurance and safety promotion.

But the agency has not carried out a requirement in the legislation that operators through SMS adopt four voluntary programmes - the aviation safety action programme (ASAP), flight operational quality assurance (FOQA), line operations safety audits (LOSA) and advanced qualification programmes (AQP).

The agency states that its review of those programmes does show they would be useful in meeting SMS requirements, but has also determined that is not appropriate to require all those specific elements in SMS development.

FAA believes including ASAP and FOQA in the SMS rule would no longer protect the information submitted voluntary from disclosure, and would impede a carrier's ability to gather critical safety information.

The agency believes that LOSA and AQP programmes require significant resources, and concludes other effective resources exist to carry out the line audits.

"The requirements of the SMS proposal would define 'what' is expected rather than 'how' the requirement is to be met. This allows for development and implementation of an SMS that matches the size, complexity and business models of diverse organizations in ways appropriate to their unique systems and operating environments," says FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.

FAA estimates the cost of proposed rule is $390 million, while estimated benefits total $470 million.

FAA's office of accident prevention and investigation identified 172 accidents involving part 121 operators from fiscal 2001 through 2010 that it believes could have been mitigated if carriers had a safety management system in place. The agency cites the 2003 Air Midwest crash of a Beech 1900D in Charlotte, North Carolina and the 2006 crash of a Comair CRJ200 in Kentucky as examples.

The proposed rule would require that carriers submit SMS plans to FAA within six months of the final rule's effective date. A key element of the plan would highlight how the airline intends to comply with the regulation during a three-year implementation period.