SMS Pro Aviation Safety Software Blog 4 Airlines & Airports

What Does "Aviation Risk Management" Really Mean?

Posted by Tyler Britton on Mar 22, 2016 6:00:00 AM

“Aviation Risk Management” Is a Vague Phrase

Real Aviation Risk Management

It occurred to me recently that the phrase “aviation risk management” gets thrown around in many different contexts, both by myself and anyone else writing about aviation SMS. While “aviation risk management” gives the impression of being a single, solid idea – something to attain for – in reality, it is a phrase that means many different things depending on the context.

It can be as much:

  • A “thing”;
  • As an adjective;
  • As a process.

Pulling the big ideas together is a critical step in recognizing the strong and weak points of your aviation safety management system. It gives long-term goals to push an SMS program towards. And it allows aviation safety management to focus energy on specific, definable aspects of safety their safety program.

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Compliance Is the First Step, Not an End Goal

Becoming compliant is the major goal of any new aviation risk management program. It’s a huge first step. In many ways, reaching a healthy level of safety compliance is a strong indicator of a well-implemented safety program, and is a testament to an aviation safety officer’s ability to manage his/her program in a specific direction.

Of course, compliance is only one step in a larger process of aviation safety. Where aviation SMS programs and safety management get into trouble is accepting Compliance as the overarching end goal. Such a mindset only has the potential to cultivate a prescriptive SMS program, rather than a performing one.

Of course, as aviation compliance requirements change, programs will have to find ways to adapt. However, the point is that in terms of aviation safety, compliance should be curtailed to fit the unique needs of a program, not the other way around.

Honest about Complacency

Complacency exists in every program. Just as SMS risk management will never be able to eliminate risks (or should that be the goal), organizations will never be completely rid of complacent front-line employees. Let’s face it, front-line workers have jobs that are:

  • Tough;
  • Often physically demanding; and
  • Often rote work.

So it’s no surprise that organizations will have workers – or even struggle with a whole work environment – that is apathetic to the safety program. If there is a problem, ignoring it or pretending like it’s less of a problem than it actually is can only stall a program’s improvement.

Successfully overcoming, converting, or working around complacency in aviation SMS requires that aviation safety management be aware and honest about the magnitude of the problem so that they can address it appropriately.

Aware of Practical Drift

ICAO defines practical drift as when “…operational performance is different from baseline performance.” Baseline deployment is basically another way of saying that your policies and procedures reflect actual practice in regards to:

  • The technology that is needed to reach goals;
  • The necessary training for workers to fulfill their position adequately;
  • The requisite employee behavioral expectations for the safety program to function efficiently.

Practical drift is a natural process of changing technology, requirements, and relationship dynamics as an organization’s size changes. Ideally, documentation would be updated along with such changes.

But let’s be “real” for a moment – it’s not exactly unheard of for an SMS program’s procedures to be an improper representation of actual practice. Such organizations get away with it by instructing employees to do lip service to the documentation during audits.

Of course, I would hope that most programs make a concerted effort to revise their “work as imagined” (safety documentation) to reflect “work as actually done” on a continual basis. This is critical because of technology

Information Flow Is Open

Information flow is simply another way of saying safety transparency. And where there is safety transparency, there is almost always aviation safety. What it looks like is:

  • Employees have liberal and easy access to almost all safety information stored in a safety hazard register;
  • Management does not hoard safety information;
  • There are no major dependencies.

In so many words, what we are talking about is decentralization of safety information. For this to happen, management has to be committed to being keeping all except high sensitive information open to everyone. A simple idea, a hard pill to swallow in actual practice.


This is a big one – and you watch, this will continually be the “buzz word” of the future concerning aviation safety. In the past, aviation SMS programs were founded upon the idea of the Swiss Cheese model of safety, which functioned by eliminating hazards or “holes” in the fabric of the safety program.

But as safety programs become more developed, and margins of “safety improvement” become smaller and smaller, a central foundation to aviation safety will continue to lie more in the ability of an aviation SMS program's ability to maintain its safety structure rather than increase safety margins. The difference in safety outlook on aviation safety between the old and new way is the same difference between

  • Absorbing vs deflecting hazards
  • Mitigating vs eliminating the risk

Modern aviation safety standards have come very close to what seems like the highest levels of safety possible – in terms of safety data. It seems natural then that proactive aviation risk management should focus on absorbing and mitigating issues when they DO actually arise.


A presumption of mature aviation safety programs is always involvement.

  • Management is involved in supporting aviation SMS tools;
  • Employees are involved in reporting issues,
  • Safety managers are actively involved in understanding their program;
  • Safety managers are actively involved in understanding ongoing changes in the program.

Involvement can be encouraged or destroyed in many ways, but when discussing lack of "aviation risk management” and “quality aviation safety”, it is almost always understood that we are also talking about lack of and involvement.

Final Thought: Drift Towards Complexity

The undeniable fact is that safety programs are drifting towards complexity. All you have to do is compare aviation SMS programs to 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. The rise of many outside influences has forced programs to become increasingly complex - influences such as:

Complexity should be encouraged, as complex systems often have many means of mitigating and absorbing problems. Complexity will continue to grow as yet one more aspect of what aviation risk management means.

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Topics: 2-Safety Risk Management

Site content provided by Northwest Data Solutions is meant for informational purposes only. Opinions presented here are not provided by any civil aviation authority or standards body.



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