Safety Management System Update: SPIs

An important area to consider when updating the Flight Department’s Safety Management System are Safety Performance Indicators. Mario Pierobon explores what these are and how they help flight operations...

Mario Pierobon  |  20th March 2023
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Mario Pierobon
Mario Pierobon

Mario Pierobon holds a Master’s Degree in Air Transportation Management from City University London,...

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Why are safety performance indicators important in flight departments


Within previous articles of this series on how to update a Safety Management System (SMS), we’ve covered how to update the Hazard Logs, and Safety Communication methods. Safety Performance Indicators (SPIs) are another important element of SMS update or implementation.

What are SPIs, and how do they relate to safety performance management? We’ll explore over the following paragraphs...

Starting With Safety Performance Management

Before attempting to understand SPIs, it is necessary to consider safety performance management. According to ICAO Document 9859 (Safety Management Manual), safety performance management should provide an organization with the means to determine whether its activities and processes are working effectively to achieve its safety objectives.

This is accomplished through the identification of SPIs to monitor and measure safety performance. Through the identification of SPIs, information can be obtained that raises the general awareness of senior managers and supports decision-making. For example, they are better able to determine whether action is needed to further mitigate an area of risk to ensure the Flight Department achieves its safety goals.

Therefore, by implementing safety performance management a Flight Department can use the information to make safety decisions, implement risk controls that apply specifically to its operations, and have a justifiable basis for resource allocation.

While the corporate Flight Department will use the SPIs at an operational or tactical level to manage safety performance, this important element of SMS implementation starts at a more strategic level, with safety objectives.

Safety Objectives

There cannot be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to establishing safety objectives since safety management is performance-based, and is largely dependent on the specific operational environment and risk profile of individual corporate flight departments. Thus, they need to be defined by the senior management of a flight department as they apply to that operation.

Ultimately, safety objectives are brief, high-level statements of safety achievements or desired outcomes, according to ICAO Doc 9859, which summarizes:

“Safety objectives provide direction to the organization’s activities and should therefore be consistent with the safety policy that sets out the organization’s high-level safety commitment. They are also useful to communicate safety priorities to personnel and the aviation community as a whole. Establishing safety objectives provides strategic direction for the safety performance management process and provides a sound basis for safety-related decision making.”

Moreover, safety objectives may be ‘process-oriented’ or ‘outcome-oriented’:

  • Process-oriented objectives: Formulated in terms of safe behaviours expected from operational personnel.
  • Outcome-oriented objectives: Includes actions and trends for the containment of accidents or operational losses.

Safety Performance Indicators

Tactically, SPIs are used to help senior managers understand whether their Flight Department is likely to achieve the safety objectives it has established. According to ICAO Doc 9859, SPIs can be qualitative or quantitative:

  • Quantitative indicators relate to measuring by the quantity, whereas
  • Qualitative indicators are more descriptive.

Quantitative indicators are preferred over qualitative indicators because they are easier to measure and compare.

Qualitative and quantitative both involve different kinds of SPIs and require a thoughtful SPI selection process.

A combination of approaches is useful in many situations, solving many of the problems that could arise from adopting a single approach. According to ICAO Doc 9859:

“Quantitative indicators can be expressed as a number (x incursions) or as a rate (x incursions per n movements). In some cases, a numerical expression will be sufficient. However, just using numbers may create a distorted impression of the actual safety situation if the level of activity fluctuates.”

To continue reading this article in the AvBuyer March digital edition, including definitions for Lagging Indicators and Leading Indicators, click the button below.

Did you the other articles in this series? Find them here:

Part 1: Safety Management System Update: Hazard Log Tips
Part 2: Safety Management System Update: Safety Communication

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