A systematic approach to safety

Business jet pilots dedicate themselves to safety, but also to delivering passengers to their destinations on time. Occasionally, the latter goal interferes with the former and the folks in the cockpit take risks you might view as, well, overly risky.

Two pilots who regularly flew a jet owner to spen, Colo., offer a case in point. The pair worried that they were courting disaster when they made the trip in marginal winter weather but felt that getting their employer to important meetings was an overriding necessity. Finally, however, they assessed the risks they were taking and talked with their boss, who had no idea that the flights had posed any danger.

Thanks to their discussion, the pilots figured out a better way to operate. On days when there was a chance of having to divert from Aspen because its weather cut safety margins too low, they arranged to have a limo waiting at the alternate airport. That way, the boss would still be able to travel to Aspen and the flight would be completed more safely. The jet owner helped by planning for an extra half hour of wiggle room on days when a diversion might be necessary.

The sort of process these pilots and their boss underwent is at the heart of a trend developing in business jet circles toward employing a safety management system (SMS). That's a process for measuring and evaluating the risks of aircraft operation. Your company may already use a similar risk-management process, especially if you're in the pharmaceutical, medical, chemical or nuclear power business. The principle behind all such systems is simple: evaluate risks and the severity of possible outcomes, then apply processes to measure those risks and avoid situations that could lead to the worst consequences.

The International Business Aviation Council administers a business-aviation-oriented SMS program called IS-BAO (International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations). Roy Rohr, IBAC's standards manager, said he has found that company leaders are more comfortable with the SMS concept than pilots might expect. "For senior managers, it's not a revelation," he said, "but for some flight department managers to understand that their senior managers understand SMS-that's a revelation."

Implementing an SMS like IS-BAO is not a simple task, but it's also not as time-consuming and expensive as you might assume and can make sense for any size operation, not just big flight departments. "We need to discover where our potential hazards are and how we mitigate them," said John Sheehan, a consultant who conducts audits to assess SMS compliance.

An SMS isn't meant to constrain business jet operations, he added, but to codify a process for measuring risk and intelligently adopting safety standards. "If you want to go beyond those [standards]," he said, "then you have to do a risk assessment and show how you mitigate that risk. IS-BAO is not hidebound. You can deviate from any standards so long as you perform a risk assessment."

Don't be surprised if you encounter some resistance when your flight department implements an SMS, but if you present your desires in terms of risk management, the program might be better received. Once you decide that an SMS is in your interest, an easy first step is to have an IS-BAO auditor scrutinize your operations. Using that as a starting point, you can build an SMS that will keep your operation not only supremely safe but cost-effective.

One form that cost savings can take is more reasonable insurance rates. "Insurance carriers view any [meaningful] process that promotes safe operations as beneficial," said Darryl Abbey, senior vice president of the Boston-based risk-management firm Hays Aviation. "Although no insurer will directly quantify the impact of those benefits on premium, the premium of an entity that implements IS-BAO should be better than [that of] a similar operation that does not have IS-BAO certification."

The other area of cost savings is accident-prevention. "If you think it's expensive to put an SMS together, just wait to see how much it costs to deal with an accident, said consultant Don Baldwin, president of Baldwin Aviation in Hilton Head, S.C.