Aviation Safety: Additional Oversight Planning by FAA Could Enhance Safety Risk Management

GAO-14-516 Published: Jun 25, 2014. Publicly Released: Jun 25, 2014.
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What GAO Found

The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Air Traffic Organization completed Safety Management System (SMS) implementation in 2010, and five other FAA organizations are implementing it now. SMS is an approach to collect and analyze safety data to identify hazards, manage risks, and take corrective action before an accident occurs. FAA's implementation activities include developing internal SMS guidance and procedures and using them to, among other things, identify hazards in the aviation system and provide oversight of the aviation industry. For example, FAA's Flight Standards Service is developing an SMS-based oversight system for the commercial air carriers it oversees. Although SMS is not yet required for commercial air carriers, airports, or any other industry segment, some are voluntarily implementing SMS as part of several FAA pilot projects. Of the 83 commercial air carriers, 77 are in the process of implementing SMS. FAA anticipates publishing a final rule in September 2014 requiring commercial air carriers to implement SMS. To a lesser extent, other industry segments are voluntarily implementing SMS. For example, according to FAA, 9 of the nation's largest airports are implementing SMS. FAA issued a proposed rule for airport SMS implementation, but development of a final rule has been delayed, and FAA has not yet determined if it will propose rules for other industry segments. Stakeholders and FAA officials speculated that the other industry segments may be waiting to implement SMS until FAA issues additional guidance or a final rule.

According to FAA officials, completing the rulemaking processes for commercial air carriers and airports has been a primary challenge to industry SMS implementation. Officials stated that one reason for delay has been difficulty in developing the benefit-cost analyses required for significant regulatory action. However, FAA is revisiting these analyses through the ongoing rulemaking process. Uncertainty about FAA plans for SMS oversight was among the key challenges for aviation industry SMS implementation. Although some inspector training has been provided, representatives from 9 of the 20 stakeholders GAO interviewed cited concerns that FAA inspectors may not be adequately trained to oversee industry SMS activities, and 6 expressed concerns that inspectors throughout FAA may not consistently interpret SMS regulations. However, FAA has not completed plans for its SMS oversight activities, including inspector training, and officials stated that they would not do so until the final rule is published. Without adequate planning of oversight and training of inspectors, FAA could find itself unprepared to meet its oversight responsibilities when final SMS rules are published.

Twelve of the 20 aviation stakeholders GAO spoke with identified additional FAA actions that could improve their SMS implementation efforts. For example, 4 stakeholders stated that providing SMS training to their employees was a challenge, and 2 suggested that FAA could assist by providing them access to FAA's SMS training. FAA indicated that it is considering industry stakeholder training needs and provided training through the pilot projects. Fourteen stakeholders were pleased with FAA's collaboration and communication, but 6 of them stated that this effort could be broadened. FAA updates its SMS website information, and FAA's most significant industry SMS forum is focusing more on SMS implementation.

Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. aviation system is one of the safest in the world, reflecting the work of FAA, industry, and others to continually improve safety. To further enhance safety, in 2005, FAA began adopting a proactive, data-driven, risk-based approach to managing safety, referred to as SMS, and has proposed rules that would require SMS implementation for certain segments of the aviation industry.

GAO was asked to review SMS implementation in the aviation industry. This report addresses (1) the status of SMS implementation at FAA and in the aviation industry; (2) key challenges that FAA and industry face in implementing SMS; and (3) actions aviation stakeholders believe FAA could take to improve SMS implementation. GAO reviewed FAA documents and interviewed FAA officials. GAO also interviewed representatives from 20 selected aviation stakeholders, including commercial air carriers, certificated airports, repair stations, and design and manufacturing firms. Because the stakeholders were non-statistically selected based on their size, SMS implementation, and the industry segment represented, their views cannot be generalized to the industry or any industry segment.

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GAO recommends that FAA develop a plan for overseeing industry SMS implementation that includes providing guidance and training for FAA inspectors by the time final rules are published. GAO provided DOT with a draft of this report for comment. DOT provided technical corrections which were incorporated as appropriate.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation To maximize the effectiveness and potential benefits of SMS implementation, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop a plan to provide oversight of industry implementation of SMS, a plan that includes providing guidance and training to the relevant FAA inspectors by the time final SMS rules for industry sectors (commercial air carriers, certificated airports, repair stations, design and manufacturing firms) are published.
Closed – Implemented
FAA is seeking to further enhance aviation safety by shifting to a proactive, data-driven, risk-based approach to safety oversight referred to as a safety management system (SMS). SMS is a formalized process that involves collecting and analyzing data on aviation operations to identify emerging safety problems, determining risk severity, and mitigating that risk to an acceptable level. SMS is becoming standard throughout the global aviation industry and air carriers and airports in the United States began voluntary implementation of SMS in advance of regulations requiring its implementation. In 2014, we reported that FAA's implementation of SMS include developing internal guidance and procedures and using them to, among other things, identify hazards in the aviation system and provide oversight of the aviation industry. This SMS oversight was to be conducted by FAA's inspector workforce, some of whom had been involved in SMS pilot programs. We found that FAA had developed proposed regulations to require SMS implementation by air carriers and certificated airports, but had not begun developing regulations for other industry sectors, notably for design and manufacturing firms, or for aviation repair stations. However aviation stakeholders, including air carriers and certificated airports told us they were concerned about the lack of information about FAA's intended oversight plans, including training for inspectors responsible for oversight of their operations, as well the inspectors' knowledge of SMS. We also reported that FAA's Flight Standards Service had not yet established guidance for inspectors for overseeing commercial air carriers' implementation of SMS or updated its inspector training program to incorporate such guidance. We noted that without providing the necessary training and guidance to its inspector workforce, FAA may not be adequately prepared to ensure the benefits of SMS as industry sectors are required to implement it. To address this shortfall, we recommended that the Secretary of Transportation direct the FAA Administrator to develop a plan to provide oversight of the aviation industry's implementation of SMS, including providing guidance and training to the relevant FAA inspectors by the time the final rules for industry are published. On January 8, 2015, FAA issued the final rule for air carriers to implement SMS. This rule went into effect on March 9, 2015. Training was conducted for FAA's inspectors as part of an ongoing voluntary implementation of SMS by air carriers. Representatives of certificate management teams and inspectors overseeing the largest air carriers received theoretical and practical training for SMS implementation. These courses were offered through the FAA's Academy and many are geared towards aviation safety inspectors. In addition, FAA provided additional guidance to its inspector workforce shortly after the issuance of the final rule. This guidance covers the approval of air carriers' SMS systems, and the oversight of this process. FAA also reported that further guidance and training will continue to be provided to FAA personnel in other industry sectors. With this necessary training and guidance for inspectors, FAA's oversight will be strengthened, better ensuring the benefits of SMS as it is implemented across the aviation industry.

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