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Why/When Aviation Safety Managers Don’t Need Operational Experience

What Does Being an Aviation Safety Manager Mean?

Aviation Safety Manager Job Without Experience

Aviation safety managers are responsible for the development, operation and continuous improvement of our world’s airline and airport’s safety management systems (SMS). Safety managers facilitate the management of all safety-related issues according to ICAO’s requirements following the four pillars:

  • Safety Policy;
  • Safety Risk Management;
  • Safety Assurance; and
  • Safety Promotion.

Most airlines and airports require that safety managers have five years of operational experience as a condition before hiring. Many LinkedIn groups discussing aviation safety management systems confirm the practice requiring operational experience of new safety managers.

Many new aviation safety professionals are seeking to switch professions from either:

  • Aviation departments not focusing on flight operations; or
  • Completely different companies outside the aviation industry.

These inexperienced safety professionals are frustrated with the “five years of operational experience requirement” and see it as a needless roadblock.

This article discusses why (and when) aviation safety officers should not need operational experience to effectively perform their SMS duties.

Safety Managers Have No Operational Control

Safety managers should never be Department Heads, except as a Dept Head for the safety department. Otherwise, conflicts of interest could develop between operational objectives and safety concerns.

Safety managers report directly to account executives. Even for safety-related issues, safety managers do not have the power to overturn or override operational decisions of other departments.

Although safety managers report directly to accountable executives, this doesn’t mean they should be considered as tattle-tales. Dept Heads still bear the responsibility to inform accountable executives of major safety concerns within their respective area of operational control.

Safety managers have special training that Dept Heads do not, namely:

  • Risk assessments;
  • Safety data classification; and
  • Risk analysis based on safety-related data.

Safety managers advise Dept Heads of potential risks. They may also recommend corrective and preventive actions, but these are only “recommendations.” Dept Heads bear all the responsibility concerning which corrective actions are implemented.

Many airlines and airports place the burden of risk monitoring onto safety managers; however, it is still the responsibility of Dept Heads to monitor risk and occasionally re-evaluate known hazards.

Following this logic, we readily see that safety managers with operational experience are more valuable to Dept Heads.

Smaller Organizations Should Require Operational Experience

Aviation safety managers need operational experience for jobs at smaller airlines and airports

Smaller organizations typically have no safety committees. Safety committees sometimes work closely with safety managers to perform:

  • Risk assessments on reported issues;
  • Proactive hazard identification;
  • Evaluations of safety initiatives;
  • Reviews of SMS program effectiveness;
  • Active monitoring of industry-related safety concerns; and
  • Reviews of training program effectiveness.

Safety managers without operational experience are not prepared to independently manage the above tasks. Smaller organizations need safety managers that have had considerable experience in either flight ops or maintenance. Otherwise, the risk will never be managed to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) because the safety manager does not understand ALARP.

Furthermore, smaller airlines and airports typically have part-time safety managers. Again, safety managers should not be Dept Heads controlling operations. Smaller operations do not have the resources to consistently monitor and mentor the activities of the part-time safety manager.

In short, smaller airlines and airports need safety managers with at least five years of operational experience.

Organizations Without Safety Committees Should Require Operational Experience

Safety committees are particularly useful to monitor risk and to help consistently mitigate risk to ALARP. Not all airlines and airports have safety committees. However, those with safety committees can afford to hire safety managers without operational experience.

Safety committees encourage discussions of safety-related issues from an inter-departmental perspective. As stated above, safety committees can possibly mentor inexperienced safety managers.

While safety managers are managing the administrative details of the SMS program, safety committees will then participate in tandem with the safety manager to perform:

When Safety Committees Fail New Safety Managers

We claimed that operators with safety committees can hire inexperienced safety managers. This is not a universal assumption and there are some risks with this approach. Below are a few considerations to determine whether your airline or airport can hire safety managers without experience, based on safety committee activities and culture.

  • Safety committees must be active and meet regularly (more than once per quarter);
  • Safety committees participate in evaluating the risk of all newly reported issues;
  • All issues are reviewed by the safety committee before closing.

I would venture that 80% of companies with safety committees would not benefit from a safety manager without experience because they don’t meet regularly enough. Furthermore, most safety committees don’t want to deal with low risk, routine safety concerns when there may be scores of more pressing issues. A safety manager with operational experience would be more beneficial and free up time for the safety committee to focus on more pressing issues.

We know several operators that require safety committee participation for ALL risk management activities. Again, most operators with safety committees use the safety committee for reviews or brainstorming sessions. But there are about 20% of safety committees that evaluate risk for everything. Personally, I don’t believe this is efficient as only higher risk issues are dealt with.

Final Thoughts on New Safety Managers without Experience

Many new safety managers approach us for career advice. These newly minted aviation safety professionals are eager to participate in making a difference in the aviation industry. While having recently completed aviation safety courses, most are frustrated when trying to acquire a position as an aviation safety professional.

If I were a new safety professional, I would not seek out a position at a smaller company.

Furthermore, I would focus on airlines and airports that have active safety committees. Operators with active safety committees are the best fit for new safety managers entering the industry.


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If you are a safety manager and want to become more proficient, we recommend you learn how aviation risk management tools can enhance your productivity and assure regulatory compliance. These three videos offer a great insight into aviation risk management processes.

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