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Part 121 Air Carriers will now need a Safety Management System

Fri Mar 20 2015


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This final ruling by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires all authorized Part 121 air carriers to create and put into place a safety management system (SMS).

The rule came into effect on March 9th, 2015 and requires Part 121 Air Carriers to begin the process of planning and implementing an SMS. Within six months of the date, air carriers will need to submit their implementation plan to the FAA; then within three years of the same date, have it operating.

The FAA put this ruling into place as part of a concerted effort to improve the safety of air transportation and change the industry’s reactive attitude towards safety into a proactive one.

According to the FAA, the commercial air carrier accident rate has decreased by a great amount in the United States over the past decade – but the FAA discovered a trend of what could have been preventable hazards and accidents. Spurred on by this, part 121 air carrier’s must submit an implementation plan within six months of the final ruling, and implement the SMS proposed by the end of this three-year period.

What goes into a Safety Management System?

The Safety Management System must have the four major components: safety policy, safety risk management, safety assurance, and safety promotion. These four parts must be fulfilled in order to have a functioning and proper SMS.

Safety Policy requires the air carrier to define safety objectives and commit towards reaching them. It also calls for the designation of an accountable executive who is responsible for the safety performance and management of its operations. This executive and a sufficient management staff will be responsible for the organization, integration, implementation and maintenance of the safety management system.

Safety assurance is the method through which “the air carrier will develop and implement processes to monitor the safety performance of its aviation operations,” according to the FAA. It is designed to be a way to monitor and audit operational processes, investigate incidents and accidents, and allow for confidential reporting of hazards and new safety improvements.

The FAA has adopted the final rule with a number of minor modifications

The FAA has adopted the final rule with a number of minor modifications based on comments. Some of the important changes are as follows:


Scalability was addressed – though the rule was not limited as suggested. The FAA recognized the impact that the rule could make on small businesses. The FAA designed the requirements to be applicable to all air carriers, making sure that all sizes, scopes, complexities and types were covered. 14 CFR 5.3 was revised in order to fit these changes.


A number of entities asserted that the rule was too broad and would reach beyond the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight authority. Commenters suggested that the rule be revised in such a way to limit SMS to areas that would only directly affect aviation activities. The FAA took the comments into account and limited it as such.

The FAA acknowledged that some airports may only use their safety management systems on the narrow range where it is required, and others may expand it beyond that. If an air carrier decides to expand, the FAA will continue to only oversee SMS related activities in accordance with the provision.

Protection of Information under FOIA:

Sixteen organizations raised concerns about SMS data not being protected from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. The consequence would be that the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight would be compromised because of the lack of data being submitted to them. Commenters said that the protection of data is vital to ensuring the free-flow of information with the FAA.


The FAA was asked to publish its plan for compliance and enforcement. The FAA stated that each SMS would be uniquely designed to meet the needs and wants of each air carrier. Determining compliance will depend on what is needed in each case – meaning discretion will be exercised in deciding how to enact enforcement.

Larger air carriers participating in the Pilot Project typically use their existing divisional structures as a foundation for SMS management. The flight safety organization or equivalent provides a source of standardization

Each division typically establishes a management review process with a committee chaired by the most senior manager (generally a senior vice president) in the division. This senior manager may be one of the management personnel that is already required of an air carrier conducting operations under part 121 under 14 CFR 119.65. These committees are most often supported by a staff-level working group that attends to day-to-day safety management functions, and advises the senior management committee.

Overview of the Final Rule

There are many more items that were discussed and addressed in the comments and by the FAA – so if these are of interest or affect you, read on in the full final ruling on the topic issued by the FAA here. (January 2015)

This final rule requires air carriers authorized to conduct operations under 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) part 121 (part 121) to develop and implement a safety management system (SMS) to improve the safety of their aviation-related activities. SMS includes an organization-wide safety policy; formal methods for identifying hazards, controlling, and continually assessing risk; and promotion of a safety culture. When systematically applied, SMS provides a set of decision-making tools that air carriers can use to improve safety. SMS improves safety by addressing underlying organizational issues that may result in accidents or incidents.

Recommend that the FAA release its compliance and enforcement plan and provide the industry with an opportunity to comment.

The FAA has also revised the guidance material that was published for comment with the NPRM. The revised guidance material provides a variety of examples of how to implement the SMS processes and procedures that an air carrier may develop based on the size, scope, and complexity of its operation.

The examples outlined in the guidance material are not intended to limit an air carrier to only these methods of compliance. The following outlines different approaches, based on processes and procedures developed by air carriers participating in the Flight Standards Service (AFS) Voluntary SMS Pilot Project (“Pilot Project”), which may be adapted to fit the operational needs of an air carrier based on the size of its operation.

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