Safety management systems (SMS) have been required by many state regulatory agencies for years now. This is in compliance with the standards and recommended practices (SARPs) established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Non-punitive policies that encourage open reporting of safety issues are crucial to an effective SMS. But the implementation of non-punitive policies has had mixed results for a variety of reasons.
Many states have established voluntary reporting processes that they say are non-punitive. However, it is important to understand the context. In some of these voluntary programs, information received by the regulatory authority must be assessed against regulatory requirements. If a violation of civil aviation code exists, the information is processed through normal means, which often results in a punitive action against the report submitter. Only when no violation of aviation code is identified can a report submitter be assured that the information will be treated in a non-punitive manner.
In other cases, regulatory authorities have established non-punitive voluntary reporting programs that do not contain sufficient guidance and limitations on how these non-punitive reports should be processed. As a result, in some cases, operators have leveraged the programs to circumvent punitive action by the civil aviation authority, even in cases involving evidence that the operator did not act in the best interests of safety.
To complicate matters, operators with advanced programs and documented non-punitive policies are sometimes found in violation by local civil aviation authorities as a result of information gathered though the operator’s own safety reporting systems. In some cases, both the operator and its employees are found in violation. After that happens, information that could identify safety issues and hazards is not likely to be shared openly in the future.
Flight Safety Foundation, as part of an effort to understand how the adoption of recommended practices at state levels has affected front line operations of operators in ICAO member states, began a project this year to evaluate the effectiveness of safety reporting systems in capturing information that could identify safety hazards and to manage the risk, the very essence of SMS. The Foundation, in collaboration with Copa Airlines in Panama, the Panamanian Pilots Union and the Civil Aviation Authority of Panama, established an aviation safety system enhancement team, which is developing a voluntary open reporting program that establishes clear guidance and limits on non-punitive information.
The project in Panama aims to align the state’s regulatory guidance with an operator’s reporting system to maximize the open exchange of information that can be used to enhance safety. While the program draws on experience from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aviation Safety Action Program, Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program and other successful models throughout the world, the team’s goal is to ensure the program is designed specifically for the needs of Panama and its aviation industry.
Once established in Panama, the program can be used as a model for similar processes throughout the world.