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Capital View: NTSB's Sumwalt a Safety Champion

Hear the NTSB chairman's views on safety management systems, organizational safety cultures and more.

Feb. 26, 2018

ROBERT L. SUMWALT III became chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board in August 2017, after serving 11 years as a board member and then vice chairman. Prior to coming to the NTSB, Sumwalt was a pilot for 32 years, accumulating more than 14,000 flight hours with Piedmont Airlines and US Airways. While at US Airways, he worked on special assignment to the flight safety department and served on the airline’s Flight Operational Quality Assurance monitoring team. Following his airline career, Sumwalt managed the flight department of a Fortune 500 company. Sumwalt also chaired the Air Line Pilots Association’s Human Factors and Training Group and served as a consultant to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System.

Q: You believe that safety management systems (SMS) are important to improving safety. What are the key elements of an SMS?

People seem to be making this “SMS thing” entirely too difficult. Think of the requirements posed by SMS as those things that a professional flight department should be doing anyway. In many ways, these are the things that many operators are already doing, but they just aren’t calling it SMS.

Someone suggested that instead of calling it “SMS,” we should simply think of it as a business approach to managing safety, where an organization manages and values safety in the same way that it manages and values other vital business functions.

For example, organizations typically place great importance on finances, so they manage finances carefully. They appoint a chief financial officer, have financial controls and procedures, and conduct internal and external audits.

So, if safety is important to your flight department, shouldn’t you have a formal way to effectively manage safety? That’s what an SMS does – it provides a structured, business approach to managing safety.

An SMS has written policies, procedures and guidelines; data collection and analysis; and risk management, all held together by a safety culture.

Written policies, procedures and guidelines are simple – write the way you intend to do things, and then operate that way.

With data collection and analysis, the organization collects and analyzes information from multiple sources so managers can keep their fingers on the pulse of the operation.

When “risk management” is mentioned, some people’s eyes glaze over. But the truth is we manage risk whenever we modify the way we do something to increase our chances of success and decrease our chances of failure.

The lifeblood of an SMS is using data to keep your finger on the pulse of your operation; the heart of an SMS is a process of continuous improvement; the soul of an SMS is having a strong commitment to safety culture.

Q: So how does an organization promote safety culture?

Safety culture begins with leadership, but it has to permeate the entire organization. If the leaders aren’t truly committed to it, you won’t get others to buy into it. In other words, people will watch you, and they will do what they think you want, and not necessarily what you say you want. As a leader, what message are you sending? Safety must be a core value that drives everything you do.

Q: You are a veteran of numerous accident investigations. What factors help make an investigation a true agent for change?

An effective, credible investigation needs to be independent, objective and thorough. Determining the cause of an accident is of little value if the knowledge does not prevent future accidents. And we must not be satisfied with superficial findings. We must look for the underlying issues. If we focus only on the obvious error, we may miss valuable accident-prevention opportunities because systemic flaws may remain undetected and, thus, uncorrected.

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This article originally appeared in the January/Febuary 2018 issue of Business Aviation Insider. Download the magazine app for iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.