SMS Pro Aviation Safety Software Blog 4 Airlines & Airports

Difference Between Reactive, Proactive and Predictive Risk Management in Aviation SMS

Posted by Tyler Britton on Apr 5, 2023 6:11:00 AM

Why You Need to Know the Difference Between Reactive, Proactive, and Predictive Risk Management

Difference Between Reactive, Proactive and Predictive Risk Management in Aviation SMS

Aviation safety managers and employees who understand the real difference between reactive, predictive, and proactive risk management activities gain considerable benefit for generating good safety performance.

The fact is that these three types of risk management strategies are often misunderstood and/or confused.

Can you describe the difference?

Each type of strategy has particular activities and behaviors that are useful in different situations. We can understand the basic purpose of each type of risk management as follows:

  • Reactive: mitigate severity of safety events and threats;
  • Proactive: identify safety concerns before safety events happen; and
  • Predictive: anticipate future exposure based on past performance data.

Developing all three forms of risk management involves understanding your aviation SMS program and employees. Let’s look at what each type of risk management is, and situations when each type is useful. Here is a table that broadly shows the difference:



Reactive Risk Mgmt

Proactive Risk Mgmt

Predictive Risk Mgmt


Actions in response to hazard/risk occurrence

Actions that address perceived hazard/risk occurrence before it actually occurs

Actions that attempt to forecast future, potential hazard/risk occurrence

Management Activity


After hazard/risk occurrence, take measures (i.e., corrective actions) to prevent re-occurrence. Management does this by processing incident/accident reports and

Before an identified hazard occurs, management creates control measures to prevent initial occurrence. Identifying these hazards usually happens through proactive activities, or by reviewing proactive reports.

Analyzing current operations to identify areas of potential concern in future, hypothetical situations. This is done almost exclusively by reviewing existing systems and processes.

Front Line Employee Activity


Once a hazard occurs, employees take action to prevent an accident. If risk occurrence is inevitable, employees take action to mitigate damages. These issues must be reported.

Hazard mechanisms and threats are identified before hazard occurrence (and hazard occurrence is mitigated). These issues are generally "voluntary" reports, but it's a best practice to encourage employees to report these issues.




  • MOR
  • Incident report
  • Accident report
  • Audits/inspections
  • Voluntary reporting
  • Surveys
  • System analysis
  • Safety case
  • FDA

What Is Reactive Risk Management

I can’t help but feel like reactive risk management has kind of a bad reputation in aviation SMS programs. It’s often perceived as the “lowest” or most basic form of risk management. This idea is propagated mainly because reactive risk management is generally associated with aviation safety programs that are:

  • Early in implementation;
  • Not very developed safety program; and
  • Lack of safety culture.

A better term for the above would be “underdeveloped” risk management. Reactive risk management is extremely important for new AND mature safety programs. Programs without strong reactive risk management strategies are exposed to considerable risk. This is because reactive risk management is an essential element of:

  • Mitigating safety events after hazard has occurred;
  • Minimizing damage from critical safety situations;
  • Acting quickly and efficiently in response to undesirable incidents; and
  • High-quality decision making in reaction to safety data (threats, risk, etc.).

Long story short, reactive risk management is the ability of all safety personnel to make good decisions without premeditation. Being able to do this takes years of experience and aviation risk management training.

Have You Also Read

When to Use Reactive Risk Management Strategies

Reactive risk management is best used as a strategy in the following situations:

  • In new SMS programs that do not have the requisite safety data to practice proactive or predictive risk management;
  • In response to safety events; and
  • In dealing with threats that suddenly arise in the operating environment.

High-quality reactive risk management is critical at all levels of SMS implementation. In particular, new SMS programs will deal with more safety events as they learn what they are exposed to.

Setting quality reactive risk management behavior early in implementation will prove to be extraordinarily beneficial as the program is implemented. Cultivating quality risk management requires:

  • Quality risk management training for all employees;
  • Strong bureaucracy regarding safety behavior, such as procedures, checklists, and a list of desired employee behavioral actions; and
  • Good hazard and risk fluency for identifying and assessing safety items.

What Is Proactive Risk Management

Ground crew at  airport

Proactive risk management is often upheld as the highest form of risk management. This is because being able to demonstrate proactive risk management activities generally doesn’t happen until an SMS program is fairly mature.

The primary goals of proactive risk management are:

  • Identify behaviors that lead to hazard occurrence, and stop it before it happens;
  • Identify root causes before they lead to hazard occurrence; and
  • Understand safety “inputs” of your program – i.e., underlying causes that lead to safety performance.

Being able to practice proactive risk management generally requires:

  • A great deal of safety data;
  • The ability to monitor complex safety metrics; and
  • A mature safety culture.

That being said, there’s no reason that new aviation SMS programs can’t partially adopt some proactive risk management strategies, such as monitoring a handful of leading indicators.

It’s important to remember that proactive risk management is not simply a concept or “better” version of reactive risk management. Proactive risk management involves specific activities that are entirely different from reactive risk management activities. Both reactive and proactive risk management complement each other, and each strategy is useful in different situations.

When to Use Proactive Risk Management Strategies

Proactive risk management strategies are best used in the following situations:

  • Identifying issues before hazard occurrence;
  • When trying to understand the inputs of the program, which are underlying behaviors, attitudes, and actions that directly correlate to safety performance; and
  • Uncovering precursors to risk, such as the relationship between certain root causes and hazard occurrence.

Like reactive risk management, proactively managing risk is the responsibility of front-line employees as well as safety management. Each sector of an organization has its own proactive behaviors that generate a solid, proactive culture in an aviation SMS program.

What Is Predictive Risk Management

I see predictive risk management confused with proactive risk management all the time. While there can be overlap between proactive and predictive management strategies, they are for the most part distinct.

Predictive risk management attempts to:

  • Identify possible risks in a situation based on given circumstances;
  • Identify new threats in hypothetical scenarios; and
  • Anticipate needed risk controls.

Predictive risk management is largely possible due to the use of lagging indicators, or past historical performance, which is used to predict possible future performances. This is the exact opposite of proactive risk management, which uses aviation leading indicators to directly assess underlying causes and precursors to current performance.

Have You Also Read

When to Use Predictive Risk Management Strategies

Predictive risk management becomes extremely useful in the following activities that are common to aviation safety programs:

  • Management of change;
  • Risk analysis in hypothetical scenarios; and
  • Forecasting performance data (such as to stakeholders).

It’s important to understand that predictive risk management is useful for creating expected “ranges” of safety performance, and a framework for future risk exposure. Specific predictive risk management information should not be trusted to the same degree that, say, proactive risk management information is.

You will find the following free resources helpful for developing your proactive and reactive risk management activities

New Call-to-action

New Call-to-action

Last updated in May 2024.

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.



Benefits of SMS Pro Database

Affordable, Basic Compliance for Small Aviation Service Providers

Best Practices for Aviation SMS


Watch SMS Pro Demo Videos

These two on-demand videos offer:

  • High-level overview of SMS Pro;
  • Hazard Reporting & Risk Management walk-through.
Watch SMS Pro Demo Videos

Subscribe to Email Updates

Recent Posts