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What Is Modern Aviation Risk Management Cycle - with SMS Resources

Posted by Christopher Howell on Dec 20, 2018 5:08:00 PM Find me on:

Aviation Risk Management Cycle

What Is Modern Aviation Risk Management Cycle

Risk management has always been the core element of effective aviation safety programs. Before the advent of formal aviation safety management systems (SMS), aviation service providers managed operational risk in their everyday activities, but certainly not in a formal, structured process that has now become the adopted worldwide standard.

This standard has been initiated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2006. You can learn more by reading the SMS guidance material.

Aviation service providers around the globe have been spending considerable time and energy implementing ICAO-compliant SMS. For those operators that are not merely "checking the box," they have realized that there are many benefits to a sincere, wholehearted implementation. These operators are structuring their risk management programs according to best industry practices, most of which have been handed down by ICAO's safety management guidance materials.

Related Aviation Risk Management Articles

Safety professionals today must be intimately familiar with the modern aviation risk management cycle, which is based on ICAO's risk management concepts. These concepts are broken out into these phases:

Hazard Reporting Starts the Aviation Risk Management Cycle

Employees, customers, and other stakeholders interact within your operating environment. They are working or using your services. During these interactions, they often identify whether a potential risk exists. When it is convenient, most will report identified hazards using formal hazard reporting tools. These reported issues are not always hazards but may cause accidents, incidents, or irregularities.

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Most aviation service providers today have simple, user-friendly hazard reporting systems that minimize resistance, from the reporters' perspective to reporting these "safety issues." For example, hazard reporting systems have multiple methods for stakeholders to submit these accidents, incidents, and irregularities. They may include:

  • Web-based electronic forms;
  • Paper based forms;
  • Email that feeds into hazard reporting databases;
  • Telephonic transcriptions services tied into hazard reporting databases; and
  • Mobile apps.

The point is that these hazard reporting systems must be easy to use to reduce friction and encourage reporting. Otherwise, stakeholders won't participate in the aviation SMS. Consequently, you will not have any reported issues to manage.

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Paper-Based Hazard Reporting Exists, but Not for Much Longer

Paper-based reporting is still used, but the days of filling out a paper form and dropping it into the black hole may soon be over. Electronic reporting has some obvious benefits over the paper, including:

  • Automated notifications to safety teams;
  • Increased accountability as "electronic hazard reports" are difficult to lose or hide;
  • No need for safety teams to transcribe paper-based reports into another system, as the workload has been distributed to the reporter; and
  • No need to keep printing paper reporting forms that seem to get covered in dust.

Reasons to continue using paper-based hazard reporting forms include:

  • Poor Internet connectivity at most areas of operations;
  • Older, computer-illiterate workforce; and
  • Lack of top management support for modern aviation SMS database tools.

We have seen how safety tools affect safety cultures. A good case in point is the FAA-sponsored WBAT software. In a dozen years, I have never heard a good thing said about it. Employees don't use it unless they have to. When your SMS database affects safety culture, the safety team must mitigate the risk to the SMS.

Download aviation safety culture checklist

Modern Aviation Risk Management Affects Entire Organizations

Hazard reports are no longer tied only to maintenance and flight operations. The original intention of aviation SMS is that it involves the entire organization. An SMS is tied very closely to improving not only safety but also the quality of operations. Many airlines and airports have integrated safety and quality into the same departments. The beauty of this approach is that safety becomes a real and recognized cost driver to the organization.

Safety Managers Risk Assess Reported Issues

After issues enter the hazard reporting database, the safety team commonly determines the severity and probability of risk using a risk matrix. The most common risk matrix in the aviation industry today is the 5x5 ICAO risk matrix, such as the one seen here.


Whenever potential risk to operations remains negligible, such as low to medium severity and low likelihood of occurrence, no actions may be necessary unless the issue repeats itself over time. The safety team will need to determine whether the costs to mitigate the risk outweigh the benefits of having these low-risk issues entering the system on a recurring basis. After all, one must not simply weigh the monetary costs, but also the costs to personnel in reporting the issue and the safety team's cost in managing the issue multiple times.

Safety teams must continue reactive risk management strategies whenever risk can potentially cause injury or damage to

  • People;
  • Equipment;
  • Buildings;
  • Environment; or
  • Airline or airport reputation.

Related Risk Assessment Articles

Corrective Action Preventive Action Plan to Mitigate Risk

Once the safety team has determined the level of risk, safety professionals will need to determine how to control the identified risk. In order to understand the risk, the safety professionals must be subject matter experts and have expertise in the type of affected operations. For example, a safety manager with flight ops experience may not always understand the risks associated with maintenance-related issues. In this case, safety committees should be created for more complex operations.

Safety committees are more effective at evaluating risk and determining the most appropriate corrective/preventive actions. Their proposed corrective/preventive actions will be based on the risk's severity and the likelihood of recurrence. Their objective is to mitigate risk to as low as reasonably practical (ALARP).

Safety professionals will often brainstorm various alternatives and perform a cost/benefit analysis when necessary. Safety action plans with the highest utility and the lowest cost are naturally the most attractive.

Implement Corrective Actions to Mitigate or Transfer Risk

Assigned personnel are instructed to implement corrective/preventive actions formulated in the previous phase to either mitigate or transfer the identified risk. There are often two types of corrective/preventive actions:

  • Short-term; and
  • Long-term.

The short-term corrective actions are designed to recover from an event or an impending event. Long-term corrective actions are designed to reduce recurrence and prepare the airline or airport in case the hazard manifests itself again.

Once all corrective/preventive actions have been implemented, the safety team will re-assess the risk to determine whether the implemented corrective actions actually satisfied their desired intent. Whenever risk levels are not within acceptable levels, the safety team must return to the previous phase and develop additional corrective/preventive actions, and then implement them.

As one can see, this may be an iterative process and may require several iterations until ALARP is achieved.

Download ASAP, ASRS, & Secure Workflow in SMS Pro

Monitor Risk by Tracking Corrective Preventive Actions

After all identified risks have been mitigated to an acceptable severity level or transferred, risks should be tracked to ensure the implemented corrective actions remain effective. Safety managers should not neglect to follow up and enter any newly identified hazards into the airline or airport's hazard register. The hazard register is also regularly reviewed. This ensures there are at least two mechanisms in place to monitor risk.

As time passes, safety teams need to conduct periodic reviews of the implemented corrective actions. The object here is to ensure that any new actions do not aggravate hazards or introduce unnecessary risk to the operation.

Whenever hazards repeatedly manifest themselves, the risk management cycle must begin again, starting with the hazard reporting and risk analysis phases. Hazards' risk control measures must be reviewed for effectiveness and when necessary, additional controls must be scheduled and implemented.

Related Control Measure Monitoring Articles

Final Thoughts on Modern Aviation Risk Management Strategies

All aviation industry segments will follow a similar risk management cycle. More complex organizations will have more elaborate safety committee review processes, while simpler organizations will have very streamlined risk management processes.

Regardless of whether your organization is simple or complex, safety professionals must continue to communicate risk to all affected stakeholders. I believe this is the final phase of the risk management life-cycle that many aviation safety professionals overlook.

If you want to compare your risk management processes with industry-accepted best practices, these workflows may prove helpful.

Download Risk Management Procedural Workflows

If you need risk management tools to manage your aviation SMS program, here are some short demo videos to offer you some insight into what is possible.

Watch SMS Pro Demo Videos

Last updated October 2023.

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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