5 Reasons Flight Departments Struggle with SMS (and How to Overcome Them)

5 Reasons Flight Departments Struggle with SMS (and How to Overcome Them)
William Bartholomae
Nov 10, 2020
For many flight departments, thinking about SMS doesn’t always bring a ‘warm fuzzy’ feeling.

Building an effective SMS is far from impossible. Many of the challenges you might be facing - such as striving towards a positive safety culture, navigating complex regulatory requirements, or even finding the right person for the safety manager position, have been faced and conquered by others. Flight departments, big and small, around the world are reaping the benefits of SMS every day. 

However, for many flight departments thinking about SMS doesn’t always bring a ‘warm fuzzy’ feeling. It isn’t because they don’t want to be safe, but rather their safety program has become a monster that they don’t know how to tackle. They’re spending money on safety tools and audits, completing annual training, and following the status-quo path. Still, they’re just not seeing the impacts that a well-running safety program can bring to a department. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom! Whether you're just getting started, or just feeling stuck, understanding some of the pitfalls that exist can help you take some actionable steps that will relieve some of the anxiety when striving to run a top-notch safety program. 

To help get you started, here are five common challenges associated with running an SMS, and some tips to help you overcome them!


1. The ‘safety job’ as a collateral duty


Hiring a safety manager is an essential first step towards building a safety program. In a perfect world, the candidate would be unburdened by other duties so they can focus exclusively on safety. But the reality is that many flight departments, particularly smaller ones, don’t hire a dedicated safety manager. In many cases, the safety manager role is filled by a pilot who also continues to fly in the department.


Taking on the ‘safety job’ in addition to regular flying duties is undoubtedly a noble cause. However, the downside is reduced bandwidth to effectively run the program while also maintaining a positive work-life balance. Even for seasoned safety managers, managing and building an SMS program can be a formidable task. To make matters worse, many newly appointed safety managers haven’t received formal safety training. 

How does an employee learn the essential skills of a safety manager while also juggling their additional duties?




  • Get trained. A pilot wouldn’t attempt to fly a plane without first going through training. The same principle should go for running an SMS. There are many training solutions on the market. Quality training is always a good idea and can help alleviate stress with managing the unknown - especially if you’re just getting started!

  • Phone a friend. Although the requirements for running an SMS might seem daunting on paper, having someone translate the jargon into plain language is more than half the battle. A good practice for new safety managers is actively seeking out others’ help in the industry and taking advantage of support services to help guide you through the process. Sometimes you just need some guidance to get pointed in the right direction.

  • Baby steps. Also, avoid getting overwhelmed by trying to do everything at once. The key to success is working little by little, consistently, with the ‘long game’ in mind. If you come straight out of your safety training course and try to do everything at once, you’ll likely get burned out. Take ‘small bites of the elephant’ when getting started.

  • Delegate. Another strategy is to delegate some of the program components to other people on your team. For example, if you have a safety committee, leverage their expertise and avoid making decisions in a vacuum. Departments with a safety committee can work to spread load some of the program tasks. Or, maybe you have a ‘tech-savvy’ individual who is willing to help with technology solutions - such as Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) services (aka, Flight Operations Quality Assurance - FOQA) or the launch of new SMS software. 

  • Get help! Lastly, don’t wait to get help if you need it! We’re always happy to help you get up and running. Our Safety Advisor Service can help you navigate the myriad of tasks related to running an effective safety program. We provide you with your own SMS subject matter expert to help get you trained, and show you how to run a world-class safety program.


2. Challenges with obtaining leadership buy-in


Upper-level managers set the stage for the organization's safety culture. On paper, all upper-level managers support safety. However, sometimes decisions and actions tell another story. If leadership doesn’t genuinely consider safety a core component of their business, it can trickle down into unsafe behaviors throughout the entire organization. This can present a significant challenge for a safety manager.


The best-case scenario for a flight department with poor safety practices is ‘death by a thousand cuts’ - small but costly losses that add up in the long run. Another more insidious consequence is developing a bad safety reputation in the industry. A bad reputation drives away business, causes organizational turnover, and reduces the likelihood of finding and keeping new talent. If you have ever been involved in the hiring process, you probably know costly organizational turnover can be.

The worst-case scenario is an incident or accident, which will most likely be unrecoverable from a business perspective, not to mention the terrible consequences of injury to people, or damage to equipment or property.

Contrary to what some might think, safety can also be profitable. The good news is that there is a sweet spot where flight departments can balance the delivery of their services (profitability) with investment in safety and risk controls (protection).


  • Communicate safety impacts from a business perspective. Running an SMS isn’t just good for safety. It’s good for business too. When communicating with leadership, speak their language by explaining the ‘cost of safety’ in ways that resonate from a business perspective. For example, it might be worth going back and determining the impact of previous safety events on the company’s bottom line. Think about the work-hours lost, impacts on insurance, re-training, etc. These add up over time. Understanding potential cost savings can also help justify the investment in SMS resources.

  • Communicate the benefits of continuous improvement. An SMS isn’t just used to prevent the worst-case scenario of incidents and accidents. It’s about continuously striving for quality and process improvement. It can (and should) be used to identify and alleviate “friction” within the organization. If there are better ways of doing things, an SMS can be used to find ways to fix those problems, reduce costs, and increase efficiency. 

  • Conduct an anonymous culture survey. Culture surveys offer leaders insights into the organization’s true inter-workings, revealing flaws that might have otherwise been left undiscovered. It can be a wake-up call for directors who realize that morale, perceptions, and attitudes are not as good as they thought. Conversely, they also reveal the things that your organization is doing well! Culture surveys provide fantastic insights into employees perceptions and feelings surrounding your safety posture. Most importantly, they offer objective information that can be communicated directly to management, which may otherwise be perceived as anecdotal and subjective. Use these insights to help drive meaningful change from the inside out. Click here to learn more about how to create a culture of safety in your flight department.

  • Run good safety meetings. When you have the opportunity to get in front of management, make it count. Keep the discussion objective and impartial. To do this, you’ll need the facts (data), along with the personal fortitude to resist the temptation of divulging information that could jeopardize the integrity of the safety process. Remember that it rarely matters “who” did something. It matters “what” happened so that we can do something about it. Keep it concise, efficient, objective, and data-driven.

3. Departments become overwhelmed by the looming external audit


External audits demonstrate that your flight department is maintaining safety standards. Audits are also particularly good at identifying “practical drift.” Practical drift is the subtle but dangerous shift towards undesired or unsafe practices. Audits also allow flight departments to showcase compliance with industry safety standards, allowing for the opportunity to work with high-profile clients, reduced insurance costs, and conduct international operations.

However, accomplishing a successful audit can be a significant undertaking. It requires total departmental buy-in and significant preparation. 

And while there’s no doubt that auditing plays a vital role in the industry, there is also a dark side. Audits are expensive. Additionally, various auditing businesses are often disguised as public entities, yet a profit motive is often lurking behind the scenes. For Part 135/commercial operators, a whole host of auditing businesses are fighting for your attention. They can also serve as a gateway to increased markets.

How can you stay on top of audit-related tasks while also ensuring you’re working with the right audit vendor?



  • Don’t procrastinate! Maybe the teachers who told us not to wait until the last minute to write our term-papers were on to something :) Last-minute cramming for the audit is simply not a good way to go through life. You’ll have to roll up your sleeves and do some hard work! The adage of “eating small bites of the elephant” is definitely appropriate here. Sorry, everyone. No quick fixes on this one.

  • Start with the ‘protocols'. Who else besides me likes to know the test questions before the test? The great news about audits is that there shouldn’t be any surprises. The questions, often referred to as “protocols,” are given to us before the audit! Be sure to ask your audit vendor for the most recent versions of the protocols as soon as possible (they should be given to you proactively, so hopefully, you’ll already have them). 

  • Develop a pre-audit game plan. Once the protocols are received, divide them into manageable chunks and accomplish them over a reasonable interval.  This means that you aren't left with a mountain of tasks or follow-ups at the 11th hour. If you don’t have a safety software solution yet, we highly recommend VOCUS by Polaris Aero. Their electronic checklists and auditing tools make this process a breeze!

  • Get all department heads involved, sooner-than-later. Keep in mind that your SMS is just one of the several other departments and programs evaluated in the audit. You’ll need “all hands on deck” participation to be successful. Getting department heads involved sooner than later ensures they have enough time to get their programs in order, winning ‘hearts and minds’ internally to champion the collective effort towards passing the audit.

  • Choose an auditing vendor/standard that’s best for your organization. When it comes to finding the right audit vendor, we highly encourage you to “phone a friend” for references. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your colleagues in the industry to learn about their experiences. There are options, and you should choose a vendor that aligns best with your goals, the size and scope of your operation, and the budget.

  • Get an auditor reference. While you’re getting recommendations for the right audit vendor, also ask about preferred auditors themselves. Good auditors should be rewarded by repeat business. Although preparation is always your best recipe for success, the right auditor can make the audit process a positive learning experience.

Finally, if you find yourself in the 11th hour with unresolved issues, don’t wait to get help! Contact us to schedule a chat.

4. Overwhelmed by technology, or lack thereof

Safety data is the “fuel” that drives the SMS engine. But getting safety data into your SMS can be more complicated than it sounds. Data can stream in from a variety of sources, such as employee safety reports, FOQA data, routine audits, and even safety surveys. 

One risk with getting an influx of safety data is that, either due to lack of time or resources, the data gets lost or forgotten. Instead, we need to put our safety data to work. We need to translate it from its raw format into something tangible that helps us paint a picture of the problems and fix them. 

Although data from sources like FOQA can be partially automated, it still needs to be analyzed, interpreted, and appropriately communicated to stakeholders if you hope to drive actionable improvements.



  • Invest in good software. If you struggle to keep up with the flood of safety data, you may first need to find a way to catalog and save the information. Conversely, if you’re not getting data at all, you could have other systemic culture challenges or existing software solutions are ineffective. Having the right software to capture, organize, and present your safety data is a tremendous asset for managing your safety program and reducing risk - especially when safety is a collateral duty. The right software can be a ‘force multiplier’ for you and your safety program.

  • If you struggle with technology, get a helper. For many of us, it can seem like technology advances are happening so quickly that it’s hard to keep up!  If you’re nervous about managing/implementing technology solutions (FOQA, advanced SMS software, etc.), we recommend finding a ‘tech-savvy’ person in your organization who is willing to help.


  • Our shamelessly biased, top-pick for SMS software is the VOCUS safety platform by Polaris Aero.  The VOCUS platform makes running a premier safety program totally achievable through a comprehensive yet easy to use software ecosystem. Also, their 3rd party integrations fuze together other existing technologies in your department. This helps remove data silos, facilitates more streamlined insights, and helps automate risk management processes. And you can do it all from your mobile device!  You can read more about Polaris Aero’s safety software products here.  Contact us anytime for our top software picks.


5. Finding the right personality fit for the safety manager role


As we previously mentioned, the safety manager is often a frontline employee with an existing job in the department. A positive aspect of this arrangement is that these employees are intimately familiar with the department’s inter-workings and challenges.  However, if you don't hire the right person, it can strain all departments within the organization. 

One of the most important duties of safety managers is to help cultivate a positive safety culture. That is why the role should be filled by a candidate who understands the operation and possesses the right leadership and “soft skills” to effectively work well with all departments and their stakeholders. 



For the reasons highlighted above, the following qualities are critical when choosing the right person for the job:

  • Have a genuine concern for people
  • Be resistant to hindsight bias (“I can’t believe they did that”)
  • Be impartial
  • Maintain openness
  • Reward good behavior
  • Be proactive (not waiting for things to happen before it’s too late)
  • Can be trusted with sensitive information

These attributes foster increased participation in the program and vital for facilitating a positive safety culture, and therefore a positive working environment.


Although managing an aviation safety program can seem daunting, there are some actionable steps you can take to make life easier while achieving high-levels of safety!

  • When getting started, get some training and ask for help if you need it. 
  • To get buy-in from senior leadership, ‘speak their language’ by translating the ‘cost of safety’ from a business perspective. 
  • When preparing for the audit, remember what our teachers taught us - don’t procrastinate!
  • Embrace and learn the technology. If you struggle with it, get help! Whether it’s internally in the company or externally through us, don’t stay stuck.
  • Find the right person for the job.

Protecting people, equipment, and property is paramount in your organization. The impacts of a well-run safety program don’t just support this goal, but it also facilitates a positive working environment where employees feel valued and protected. We wish you the best of luck during your safety journey! Contact us for help.

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