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Oliver Giles for AVEM Insight

In aviation, we love a good acronym. Whether you sit behind a MCP or FCU or come from the days of NDBs or RNP-AR, we all share a secret love affair with the TLA (Three Letter Acronym). In my airline, we have even coined them for our drinks order (CW1 anyone?). One TLA that was unceremoniously “borrowed” by the telecoms industry is SMS or Safety Management System. While ‘Safety Management System’ could be yet another hollow corporate acronym, the SMS is the cornerstone of aviation safety.

In this article, we shed some light on how safety data is used in the industry and what emerging technologies could do to improve on what we have now (as well as throwing in as many TLAs as I CFIT).

What is SMS?

The ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS) promulgated in several Annexes to the Chicago Convention require the implementation of an SMS in most organizations in commercial aviation, such as MROs, Airlines, ANSPs, etc. An SMS is a systematic approach to managing safety that includes policies, procedures, and processes. It helps organizations identify potential risks, assess the associated risks, and implement mitigating measures.

An SMS includes continuous monitoring and evaluation to ensure that safety risks are effectively managed and promote a safety culture within the organization.

SMS promotes a culture of safety in aviation

Airlines collect safety data from various sources; flight operations, maintenance, and ground handling. Data analysis identifies patterns, trends, and common factors that contribute to safety incidents. Airlines also develop safety performance indicators (SPIs), which measure the effectiveness of safety management systems. The most modern airlines also have a FOQA program (Flight Operations Quality Assurance). It is a voluntary safety program that collects and analyses flight data to identify potential safety issues and improve flight operations.

FOQA uses flight data recorders (FDRs) and cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) to collect flight data, which is then analyzed to identify trends and patterns that may indicate safety risks or areas for improvement. FOQA is a proactive safety program that can help airlines and aviation authorities identify safety risks before they result in accidents and take corrective actions to prevent them. The data collected through FOQA can improve pilot training, identify operational issues, and enhance SMSs.

The Challenge of Implementing a Truly Valuable SMS

One of the challenges in safety data management is data integration from multiple sources. Data integration can be a challenge. Airlines must invest in systems and tools that integrate data from various sources to provide a comprehensive view of safety. Airlines are notorious for underinvesting in IT infrastructure.

Differing safety reporting systems across the industry and even within the same airline can lead to inconsistent data. To address this, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has developed a global reporting system called the Safety Information Monitoring System (SIMS). SIMS ensures that safety information is collected and shared in a consistent and standardized manner across the aviation industry. However, one major issue is that not all countries and organizations have adopted the system, leading to gaps in safety data. Additionally, questions have risen about data confidentiality and legal liability, and the quality of safety data due to reporting practices of different organizations.

Advanced safety management systems use advanced analytics to identify trends.

Thankfully, there is industry investment in safety data management systems to overcome these challenges. One such system developed by NASA is the Advanced Safety Management System (ASMS). ASMS is a cloud-based system that collects and analyses data from various sources, including flight operations, maintenance, and ground handling. The system uses advanced analytics tools to identify patterns and trends, allowing airlines to take a more proactive approach to safety management.

How Can Technology Help?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is also becoming more prevalent in safety data management systems. AI can analyze vast amounts of data quickly and accurately, identifying patterns and trends that may not be apparent to humans or existing algorithms. AI can help airlines predict future safety risks and take preventive action before incidents occur.

Blockchain - often misunderstood, but of increasing value to aviation.

Another emerging trend in safety data management is the use of blockchain technology. Made famous by cryptocurrency, blockchain has had a somewhat unfortunate birth as a mainstream technology. Far from being a tool for nefarious money dealings, blockchain provides a secure and transparent way to share data. Blockchain technology can enhance security, accuracy, and transparency of safety-related data.

By creating a decentralized, tamper-proof ledger, blockchain can help prevent data manipulation, improve data sharing, and increase stakeholder collaboration. For example, airlines and MROs can use blockchain to securely share maintenance and inspection data in real-time, and track the maintenance history of individual aircraft parts, improving traceability and reducing the risk of using faulty or counterfeit parts. By leveraging the power of blockchain technology, the aviation industry can enhance safety and operational efficiency while reducing costs and minimizing risk.

We Can Only Run as Fast as our Slowest Members

However, despite the progress in safety data management systems, there are still areas for improvement. One such area is the collection of safety data from smaller operators who may not have the cash to invest in safety data management systems, leading to gaps in safety data. Safety data collected from smaller operators is less likely to be standardized, again leading to inconsistencies in safety data. Another challenge is the lack of transparency in safety data reporting, especially in emerging markets. Organisations or Governments may not want to report safety data for fear of negative publicity, which can lead to underreporting of safety incidents. The lack of transparency can also lead to a lack of trust between airlines and safety regulators, hindering efforts to improve safety management systems.

Technology Can Help – But It Is Not The Panacea

We know safety data is crucial to the aviation industry, and its proper management is essential to ensure the safety of passengers and crew. While progress has been made in safety data management systems, there are still challenges that need addressing. Smaller organizations should be encouraged to invest in safety data management systems to ensure that safety data is collected consistently and comprehensively. Emerging technologies such as AI and Blockchain can help improve safety data management systems and increase the transparency and standardization of safety data. By harnessing these technology solutions, cooperation between airlines and safety regulators can improve, and help to address the challenges of truly global safety data collection, reporting, and analysis.