What Is Aviation Safety Software?
For over a dozen years, the majority of commercial aviation service providers around the world have been working towards compliance with ICAO's aviation safety management system (SMS) guidelines.
Transport Canada's SMS, as well as the Australia Civil Aviation Safety Authority's SMS, are world leaders in their SMS implementations and enforcement of ICAO's SMS guidelines.
Safety professionals around the world can learn some very valuable lessons from those that have already implemented aviation SMS. We have seen an evolution from using readily available in-house software tools to the adoption of commercially available, low-cost aviation SMS software.
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Complying with ICAO's SMS guidelines requires consistent effort from safety departments. Aviation SMS affects entire organizations and successful SMS implementations cause organizations to adopt lasting and significant cultural changes.
When safety managers first begin their SMS implementations, they may attempt to manage their SMS program with existing software tools, including:
- MS Word;
- MS Excel;
- MS Access;
- SharePoint; and
Then the problems start arising. "When" the problems start coming depends on several factors, including:
- Size and complexity of the organization;
- Effectiveness of regional SMS regulatory oversight; and
- Industry segment (airline, airport, MRO, FBO, Flight School, ATC).
During the first couple years of SMS implementation, regulatory oversight is very "brotherly" or "mentor-like." After all, Phase 1 is the "Planning Stage."
During Phase I of SMS implementation, aviation service providers strive to
- provide a game plan on how to comply with the SMS requirements;
- develop and integrate SMS risk management processes into the organization’s work activities;
- establish an accountability framework for the implementation and management of the SMS;
- organize basic planning and assignment of responsibilities; and
- conduct a gap analysis.
A gap analysis is an internal assessment that compares existing organizational resources and processes against an industry-accepted SMS model. From a completed, honest assessment using a gap analysis model, aviation service providers determine the current status of their SMS implementation and identify gaps.
After completing the gap analysis, safety teams, directed by the accountable executive, engage in detailed planning for the development and completion of further safety risk management processes. The most pressing deliverable in a Phase 1 SMS Implementation is the SMS implementation plan.
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A common mistake by new safety managers is to start working on the SMS implementation plan before the gap analysis. The gap analysis should be completed first. Gap analysis models provide a more detailed process than SMS implementation plan checklists. By working through a gap analysis, safety teams glimpse the breadth and depth required for documenting the SMS. This is their first introduction to what may be required for future SMS data management requirements.
Safety managers are seldom database designers or software engineers. But they do know how to use spreadsheets.
Most operators will do their gap analysis using a spreadsheet. This is why so many end up developing a "spreadsheet SMS" from:
- Gap analysis;
- Implementation plan;
- Safety reports;
- Hazard register;
- SMS training documentation;
- Safety goals and objectives; and
- Audit management.
These are all common SMS high points that are managed by spreadsheets in the earlier days of SMS implementation. Larger companies that already had quality management systems didn't fall so easily into this trap.
I call these spreadsheet SMS what they are: "Spreadsheet SMS" because every safety manager who started an aviation SMS implementation knows what I'm talking about. As safety managers quickly found out, managing spreadsheets for multiple years across so many data points is a disaster waiting to happen. Safety managers leaving the company with all the SMS data on their laptops is about as bad news as any for an accountable executive.
From Spreadsheets to Point Solutions
As aviation service providers begin their SMS implementations, a few companies will already use a few systems that could be applied to their SMS data management strategy. These "point solutions" were usually in the form of:
- safety reporting systems;
- messaging systems;
- project management system; and/or
- auditing system.
Since these point solutions usually focused on a particular task and didn't cover all SMS documentation, these point solutions were supplemented with spreadsheets. This is the hybrid "Point Solution and Spreadsheet SMS."
Related Articles on Using Spreadsheets in Aviation SMS
- 5 Things Spreadsheets Can't Do for Your SMS
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- See How Spreadsheet Not EASA Compliant Aviation Hazard Reporting Database
Operators with more than 100 employees can get by using spreadsheets for about two years before the regulator demands something more sophisticated to match the size and complexity of the organization. They may try to retrofit SharePoint or a Help Desk software into their "risk management software."
An operator with 100 employees and fewer than 1,000 can get by with a hybrid point solution and spreadsheet SMS for about 8 years if they are lucky. Eight years is the maximum that I've seen, but I'm sure there are those that get by longer. The efficacy of regulatory oversight plays a big role. There have been reports of airlines in Turkey and Pakistan that are IATA certified that auditors have found no indication of SMS. How do these operators get by for so long? It is no mystery. The regional culture allows operators to "play the game."
Proactive safety teams and operators that have been directed by regulatory authorities to address safety performance monitoring deficiencies end up looking for something better.
A significant number of operators know SMS is coming to their industry segment and they try to get ahead of the game. The proactive operators have seen what data management pain points the early adopters went through. These proactive safety teams immediately gravitate to commercially available SMS database software. This may be due to the surge of many SMS database providers that integrate multiple-point solutions in a single framework.
Many SMS software solutions are Web-based and have subscription plans that allow operators to start capturing SMS data within a couple of days. These solutions have been designed to address all SMS requirements regardless of which region of the world the operator comes from. SMS requirements are fairly standardized as well as the safety risk management (SRM) and safety assurance (SA) processes.
Mature SMS Demand SRM and SA Risk Management Workflows
Safety managers may coast along nicely for the first few years because of SMS auditors:
- Were not as demanding for fledgling aviation SMS implementations;
- May not have known what to look for; or
- Were corrupt and not provided honest evaluations.
As years pass in an aviation SMS implementation,
- Considerable amounts of data start amassing, demanding higher SMS documentation workloads;
- Auditors become more sophisticated and firm; and
- Safety departments spend increasing amounts of time demonstrating "safety assurance" and "continuous improvement."
These reasons prompt safety departments to either:
- Build their aviation risk management tools in-house;
- Purchase commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) aviation SMS software; or
- Continue to flounder and hope for lax SMS auditors.
Unless your company is very large, you may not have sufficient budget or existing quality management software to develop your own risk management software that aligns with SRM and SA processes. Operators with existing quality management systems are often the very large players, such as Boeing, Delta Air Lines, or China Southern Airlines.
For most aviation service providers, you are better off using commercial SMS database software developed specifically for managing ICAO's aviation SMS requirements.
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What to Expect from Aviation Risk Management Tools
If your company either builds your own software or purchases commercial aviation SMS software, then you should expect your SMS solution to provide many benefits. Six benefits should include:
#1 Automated Workflow Notifications for Safety Department
Your risk management software should provide automated notifications at predetermined times in your risk management processes. For example, the most common automated notifications are either email or SMS texts.
They may fire automatically when:
- New hazards or reported safety issues enter the safety reporting system;
- Aviation safety items (tasks, corrective actions, audits, training) are assigned;
- Assigned safety items are completed;
- Assigned safety items are overdue; or
- Safety messages require action.
#2 Collaborative Aviation SMS System
One of the problems with the paper, MS Word or MS Excel is that only one person can work on the file. Then the file is saved and passed to the next person in the workflow. Modern, Web-based aviation SMS databases allow multiple persons to work on the system simultaneously. The documentation is available to all managers with appropriate permissions.
#3 Deliver More Aviation Safety Services with Less Effort
If you have ever looked at the SMS documentation requirements, they will give you a taste of how much work is involved in managing an ICAO compliant SMS. Safety departments have tremendous amounts of work to do. To do it all well, aviation-specific risk management software is required to effectively monitor SMS performance.
If you are a safety manager, then you should communicate these requirements and the amount of effort required, to the Accountable Executive. SMS Documentation is only one element, albeit perhaps one that takes the most amount of effort. How does the accountable executive wish to monitor the performance of the SMS?
Safety promotion activities also require constant attention that can consume considerable time from safety managers. Without proper communication tools, safety promotion activities will seldom be realized. Aviation SMS database software multiplies the efficiency and capabilities of the safety department by at least a multiple of two.
#4 Centralized Storage of Aviation Safety Data
Modern risk management software is based on enterprise-grade databases. The more popular SMS databases are either:
- Microsoft SQL Server; or
MS Access can be used, but usually lacks performance and the ability to satisfy SMS data management requirements of all but the smallest airlines or airports.
Centralized SMS databases are useful in that multiple users can access SMS data simultaneously. Furthermore, the database is typically on a secure server. When safety managers leave the company, SMS data is not lost. More than once I've heard of safety managers leaving with all of the aviation SMS data on the safety manager's personal laptops.
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#5 SMS Program Continuity
A sick feeling should enter the stomach of Accountable Executives whenever they think of the safety manager quitting the company. Safety managers are key personnel, and when safety managers leave the company, they leave with considerable company safety management knowledge.
Aviation SMS database tools allow a replacement safety manager to pick up where the last safety manager left off. There will be some incongruities of course, but documentation will exist. Risk management processes will also not have to be reconstructed when the operator is using best-in-class SMS software that follows ICAO's SMS guidelines.
#6 Easier for Safety Managers to Pass Aviation SMS Audits
Aviation SMS database software is built using structured processes and workflows that are based on accepted methodologies.
Additionally, SMS data is contained in one system, thereby allowing safety auditors to easily discover whether an operator complies with SMS requirements.
The best SMS databases accommodate the requirements for all four ICAO SMS components or pillars. When all SMS requirements can be managed by one system, regulatory compliance becomes easy for SMS auditors to determine. Additionally, less time is required for operators to prepare for these audits.
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Final Thoughts on Aviation SMS Software Benefits
All the above-mentioned benefits are great news for aviation service providers considering the acquisition of SMS software tools. Most systems are Web-based, but the problem with Web-based systems is that they are reliant on network connectivity.
Many regions in northern Canada, Africa, and Southeast Asia still have troubles with reliable Internet connectivity. In these cases, another solution may be required. For example, SMS Pro's database offers both offline reporting and offline auditing capabilities. Furthermore, their safety reporting system is robust and can recover failed reported issue submissions.
Despite some operators needing offline capabilities, most operators today have access to reliable Internet connectivity.
The final word is that efficient and effective management of an ICAO-compliant SMS requires tools. Otherwise, your aviation SMS implementation will not survive or will remain a paper SMS, or a struggling spreadsheet SMS.
If your SMS program has been hobbling along inefficiently and you are not satisfying all the SMS requirements, then your organization should be considering upgrading to more efficient risk management tools.
SMS Pro offers a complete SMS data management solution. If you need SMS tools to reach your SMS goals, let's work together. We've been developing SMS databases since 2007.
If you need an SMS database, please watch these short demo videos to learn whether we may be a good fit for you.
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Last updated October 2022.