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Lost promise of SMS and FRMS

A look inside the mechanisms of Transport Canada safety management


March 28, 2019
By Fred Jones

There aren’t many of us still in the system who sat around the table in the CARAC process when the phrase Safety Management Systems (SMS) was first uttered. At the time, it was sold to industry on the basis that it could provide relief from some of the most-problematic elements of the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) – if the operator could build a safety case to show their practices were at least as safe as the applicable prescriptive rule(s).

Transport Canada has made it difficult for operators to build their safety cases and its own inspectors simply do not have time for an in-depth examination. What’s more, for many inspectors, any exception to the prescriptive rules simply represents exposure for them and the department.

All of the operators and associations around the table at the time appreciated the safety-enhancing potential of SMS – the idea that if we could identify the small problems, in advance of an accident or incident, we could prevent the accident or incident. For operators who have an SMS – and who reacted using their SMS to respond to a regulatory violation and confessed their sin to Transport Canada – they were not supposed to be proceeded against by enforcement. Problem is, it often doesn’t happen, even where operators have voluntarily implemented SMS.

At a time when Transport Canada’s budgets were being reduced, SMS offered a mechanism for the department to eliminate costs, because much of the responsibility for identifying safety risks (costs of oversight) were downloaded to individual operators. Inspectors would audit the system rather than the minutia of an operation (Aircraft Inspection Check Lists, for example). What’s more, Transport Canada would not need to hire as many inspectors with operational or technical experience, in favour of inspectors who were able to determine if an SMS was functional – System Auditors.

It was Transport Canada’s intention to apply SMS to all certificate holders – Air Navigation Services Providers, airports, and all levels of the commercial aviation community (CAR 702, 703, 704, 705). Today, after more than 13 years, it is only a regulatory requirement for an ANS service provider; in CAR 705 (Airline) operations, for Part III (Airports), CAR 604 (Business Aviation) – and I have some serious doubts whether it will ever become a regulatory requirement in any other Sub-Part of CARs. Call me crazy. Meanwhile, everyone believes they know what an SMS is. Transport Canada inspectors prod operators to implement it; customers impose SMS on operators via contracts; third-party auditors insist upon a functioning SMS; and even the TSB comments negatively when a 703 operator has an accident without a fully functioning SMS in place – whatever that, is.

To make matters worse (or better), operators are implementing SMS in the absence of any regulatory guidance – sometimes at considerable expense. Some of these systems are more complicated than what Transport Canada mandates through regulation. It is naïve to believe that what operators are actually implementing in response to pressure will actually fit the SMS regulatory requirements, if regulations are ever published. This will mean that their systems will need to be re-written, at considerably more expense.

In the absence of any SMS regulatory requirement, Transport Canada has also included an optional requirement for Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS), intended to provide the same opportunity for relief from new prescriptive Flight & Duty Time (F&DT) limits, which SMS was supposed to provide from CARs. We have no reason to believe that it will be any more successful, particularly since an FRMS is just an SMS applied to fatigue-related risks. Sadly, access to an FRMS, will not be an option for helicopter operators, since the new F&DT regulations represent a radical and oppressive departure from the current regulations. FRMS, for us, will be essential and costly, since there are a variety of major elements of the new regulations that require separate FRMS applications. FRMS was never intended to be a mechanism to re-write regulations, only to tweak them.

The solution, you ask? Transport Canada should either move forward with an SMS regulatory requirement and an FRMS for small operators that really are “scalable for the size the complexity of a small operator”, or stop pushing operators to implement an SMS, and change the Flight & Duty Time regulations to better accommodate the reality of helicopter operations.


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