Aviation SMS | a Simple Introduction

 airline safety management system

In 2013, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted Annex 19 to the Chicago Convention to implement Safety Management Systems (SMS) for aircraft operators, airport operators, and service providers throughout the globe.

A safety management system is a systematic and proactive approach for managing safety risks. As with all organizational management systems, SMS includes goal setting, planning, and measuring performance. An effective safety management system is woven into the fabric of aircraft operators, airport operators, and service providers. It becomes part of the culture, the way people do their jobs.

Airline safety management system goes beyond compliance with prescriptive regulations to a systematic approach where potential safety risks are identified and managed to an acceptable level. It adopts a business-like approach to safety, similar to finance management, with safety plans, safety performance indicators, and targets and continuous monitoring of the safety performance of the aviation organization. Furthermore, it enables effective risk-based decision-making processes across the management levels of the aircraft operator, airport operators, and service providers.


What is a safety management system?

Airline safety management system is a proactive and integrated approach to managing safety including the necessary organizational structures, accountabilities, policies, and procedures (the UK, CAA, CAP 795).

Another definition, the safety management system is a systematic approach to managing safety, including the necessary organizational structures, accountabilities, policies, and procedures (ICAO, Doc 9859).


I will clarify these two definitions by explaining the three core aspects of SMS:


A- Systematic

Safety management activities are per a pre-determined plan and applied consistently throughout the management of aircraft operators, airport operators, and service providers.


B- Pro-active

An approach that emphasizes hazard identification and risk control and mitigation, before events that affect safety occur,


C- Explicit

All safety management activities are documented and visible.

A safety management system is more than a manual and a set of procedures. It requires safety management to be integrated into the day-to-day activities of the aircraft operators, airport operators, and service providers. Furthermore, the development of organizational culture - safety culture - that reflects the safety policy and objectives.


Why a safety management system?


In my previous article, SWISS CHEESE MODEL for accident causation. I pointed out that during the period from 1970-1990, safety endeavors do not include failures in the management and organizations of safety. In the mid-1990s, safety endeavors began to be viewed from a systemic perspective and started encompassing organizational factors besides human and technical. 

But at that time, there was no consideration on how parts or components can affect the whole, safety-wise. Herein lies the fundamental consideration at the foundation of SMS (Total system). A safety management system’s conceptual discipline is the first layer for cohesiveness and integrity of the whole.


Benefits of having an SMS

There are many benefits of implementing SMS by service providers, I will mention some of them:

  1. Continuing authorization to operate
  2. Improving safety performance
  3. Continuing improving and managing of change
  4. Reducing costs associated with accidents and incidents
  5. Increasing employee productivity
  6. Improving staff relations and morale
  7. Improving operation efficiency
  8. Enhancing image (employees, community, clients, and customers)
  9. Lowering insurance premiums
  10. Easing access to finance
  11. Increasing regulatory compliance
  12. Improving confidence
  13. Boosting corporate and social responsibility
  14. Promoting a positive safety culture


 What are the four elements of SMS?


 SMS is composed of four functional components and twelve elements, and its implementation shall be commensurate with the size of the organization and the complexity of the services provided.

  1. Safety Policy.
  2. Safety Risk Management.
  3. Safety Assurance.
  4. Safety Promotion.


sms aviation

I will list the components and elements of the SMS framework in this table.





1- Safety Policy

1.1 Management commitment

1.2 Safety accountability and responsibilities

1.3 Appointment of key safety personnel

1.4 Coordination of emergency response planning

1.5 SMS documentation

2-Safety Risk Management

2.1 Hazard identification

2.2 Safety risk assessment and mitigation

3- Safety Assurance

3.1 Safety performance monitoring and measurement

3.2 The management of change

3.3 Continuous improvement of the SMS

4- Safety Promotion


4.1 Training and education

4.2 Safety communication





An SMS is essentially a quality management approach to controlling risk. It also provides the organizational framework to support sound safety culture. It provides the company’s management with a detailed roadmap for monitoring safety-related processes.



Further reading:

- ICAO Doc 9859, Safety Management Manual

- FAA, Introduction to Safety Management Systems for Air Operators

- UK CAA, CAP 795, Safety Management Systems (SMS) guidance for organizations


Maged Saeed AL-Hadabi

I’m Instructor / Maged Saeed Al-Hadabi. ​ Air Cargo / IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations / Safety Management System Senior Instructor, Auditor [ Yemen Airways] . Approved IATA DGR/ SMS Instructor by Yemen Civil Aviation Authority.

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