My original mentor in the private jet business used to say, “Every meeting we have, discussion, or company directive needs to start with safety.” In my 15 years in aviation I’ve come to appreciate this mantra.  But what is “safety” in business aviation? Acronyms like SMS (Safety Management System) are often bantered around, but what is SMS and how is safety measured? In this article I’ll take a high level overview of how safety is measured in the private aviation world and what you need to look for as a well-educated consumer of private jet charter and aircraft management services. A well implemented SMS and active safety culture is not always ensured just because an operator has safety rating from an organization such as ARG/US, IS-BAO, or Wyvern.

Many aircraft operators have SMS systems in place, but few have well implemented, technology driven, processes imbedded in their fundamental operating procedures that impact all aspects of their businesses. What I describe as an “elite level” SMS leads to a pervasive “safety culture” centered on repeatable and proactive process and procedures that mitigate the inherent risk in aviation to the lowest acceptable level. The FAA has provided the industry with “Four Pillars” to base an SMS system on: Policy, Risk Management, Assurance, and Promotion. With this little bit of FAA direction the construction and implementation of the SMS is up to the individual operators and there are many differing approaches, tools, and technologies in use. Here are some of the key components to ensure your operator as an elite level Safety Management System in place as opposed to some paper pre-flight reports completed by pilots that go into a filing cabinet and an aging safety manual gathering dust on a shelf at your operator’s hangar.

Start at the top with a dedicated resource

Any quality SMS is going to have a full-time Director of Safety responsible for overseeing all aspects of the program and reporting directly to the operator’s most senior manager (i.e. President/CEO). An elite level SMS cannot be run by a part-time employee or an employee primarily utilized in other capacities such as an active full time line pilot, a director of maintenance, or accounting staff member. Ask to meet and speak with the Director of Safety and get a review of the company’s SMS.

Active, Daily Risk Management with Regular Data Analysis

A well-known component of Safety Management Systems are Risk Assessments (RA) conducted prior to every flight by flight crews. But it takes more than just having pilots fill out a form to achieve an elite level SMS. What happens to those forms? Are they captured in an electronic manner so data can be analyzed for trends? What technology is utilized to gather the data (flight crew iPads, software packages, company web portals, etc.). Is software leveraged to find trends and identify areas for risk mitigation? Are the risk assessments actively used for other safety sensitive employees such as aircraft technicians and line personal or only for flight crews? What mechanisms are in place to notify key company personnel (all the way to the top executive!) of operations in excess of predetermined risk levels so mitigation or flight cancellation can occur? Risk Assessments are the basic building blocks of an elite SMS so how, when, and where this data is captured and what’s done with it is crucial.  

Internal Evaluation Program

Just as risk data is collected via daily Risk Assessments an active Internal Evaluation Program (IEP) must be in place. An IEP reviews all functional areas of the company on a scheduled basis ensuring all aspects of the operation are reviewed at least annually via internal auditing processes. Vulnerabilities, or areas for improvement are identified by departmental managers, key stakeholders, company executives, and the Director of Safety and corrected promptly. A standing Safety Committee with regularly scheduled meetings to review IEP findings and company safety trends must be in place and must include the operator’s top executive. An IEP is a systematic process of self-evaluation and improvement and is essential to an elite tier SMS.

Internal Evaluation Program

Internal and External Auditing Mechanisms

While an IEP is essential external audits are also important. An operator whose earned ARG/US Platinum or similar safety credentials have undergone intensive, onsite audits. Their SMS systems have been thoroughly reviewed.  Each auditing entity has a different approaches and differing standards. In general, the more audits your operator has gone through the better. Oil and gas companies, the US Department of Defense, or major fractional fleet operators such as Net Jets, all challenge business jet operators to refine their SMS and overall operations.

Promotion and Regular Safety Communications

As a potential consumer this is probably the most difficult SMS element to judge in my opinion. Do you see the operator making significant time, resource, and capital expenditures on safety such as flight, maintenance, and crew resource management (CRM) training with top tier providers, or continually updating software and technology tools? Does the operator have a regular safety communication that goes to all employees? Is the information timely and relevant, for example reviewing winter flight hazards going into colder months, and reviewing recent safety reports and elevated risk levels identified through evaluation of Risk Assessments. How is safety the center point of everything the operator does? Speaking with rank and file employees and asking about their experience and perception of the operator’s “safety culture” can be a good way to ascertain this.

Easily Accessible ANONYMOUS Safety Reporting

How do employees identify safety issues? Can it be done anywhere, anytime? Can pilots access reporting tools on their iPads, or technicians at their workstations on the shop floor? Do team members have the ability to remain anonymous to alleviate any potential fears of retribution? Ask your operator how many safety reports they get on a monthly basis. Having few is not necessarily a good thing. As aviation professionals we face risk daily and what differentiates elite, safety centric organizations, are those who’ve built a culture of identifying and mitigating risk.  

Safety reporting

In conclusion, ask questions, dig deep, because at the end of the day nothing is more important than the safety of your next flight with trusted business colleagues, friends, or family.