"Safety Management Systems" (SMS) is the rationale given by Transport Canada as it hands over more and more of its regulatory responsibilities to others.
There is an long-standing trend in many industry sectors towards formal management systems designed to provide better control of product quality and safety. When implemented properly, such systems can ensure greater consistency and reliability of operations.
However, the experience of many industries is that these systems have often not lived up to their promise. Typical problems include sloppy implementation and/or aggressively profit-driven organizational cultures that conflict with the fundamental aim of the system.
ICAO and SMS
In aviation, the international governing body (ICAO) has followed this trend by adopting a requirement for carriers to develop safety management systems (SMS). This initiative is still at an early stage, and ICAO is proceeding cautiously, but it should be noted that ICAO does not call for any reduction in the oversight activities of the national regulators.
To establish a safety management system, a company sets out formal procedures to ensure safety, monitors its own performance, notes problems or violations, and analyzes such occurences in order to eliminate the root causes and improve its safety performance. The theory is that the company can now manage and improve its own safety performance proactively. In practice, SMS can at its worst amount to little more than a façade of questionable paperwork, concealing a rat's nest of bad practice and safety violations.
For example, in 2008 the US carrier Southwest Airlines was found to have skimped on vital airframe inspections (designed to detect metal fatigue that can cause catastrophic failures) and flown dozens of uninspected planes, in some cases for months. It was only when FAA inspectors went public with the information that they had found cracks that the problems got fixed: the airline and the FAA itself claimed (and the paperwork indicated) that everything was being done in compliance with the rules.
This incident was especially troubling as Southwest is one the the USA's most experienced, profitable and well-managed carriers. If Southwest would do this, what are other carriers doing?
Transport Canada has been an early and aggressive adopter of its own brand of SMS, claiming that it is adding an "extra layer" of protection. However, this claim is not supported by the facts: TC's regulatory oversight is being progressively dismantled. It has already shut down some of its inspection and certification programs and handed over its monitoring responsibilities to others such as carriers themselves and industry associations.
There is considerable concern and controversy over TC's approach, which is often characterized as "letting the fox guard the hen house". Industry insiders such as pilots, mechanics, inspectors, air traffic controllers have been especially vocal about what they see as a progressive degradation of air safety in Canada.
Transport Canada's approach does not appear to be driven by a desire to improve air safety; rather, it seems an attempt by the bureaucracy to reduce its costs and also its liability in the event of accidents. (In the past, lax regulatory oversight has been found to be a contributing factor in many accidents, and in some cases the courts have found Transport Canada liable for significant compensatory damages.)
Bill C-62, then C-6, then C-7, then...
Since 2005 Transport Canada has been promoting legislation (The Act to Amend the Aeronautics Act) that will retrospectively authorize what it is already doing, and allow it to proceed rapidly with even more radical hand-offs of its responsibilities to others.
Many industry experts and insiders fear that this dangerous trend will not be reversed until a major accident occurs, thus forcing a proper public examination of what is going on in the industry.
Justice Virgil Moshansky, who after the 1989 Dryden crash conducted the most extensive inquiry ever into Canadian aviation safety, has publicly criticized this legislation and called for a new public inquiry into the state of air safety in Canada today.
At the time of writing (April 2009) this much-criticized legislation is close to becoming law: it has already passed two readings in the Commons and now only requires a third reading and approval by the Senate.
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