November 23, 2010

Aviation faculty to assist airport with safety effort

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Aviation faculty at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will assist the Southern Illinois Airport Authority in implementing one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s leading safety initiatives.

Part of an FAA pilot study, the safety management system, or SMS plan, will provide a systematic and proactive approach to safety in and around certified commercial airports.

Of the more than 19,000 public and private airports in the nation, there are approximately 600 certified commercial airports, including Southern Illinois Airport. While the airport no longer receives scheduled commercial service it remains certified to permit large commercial aircraft charters to the airport, which occurs periodically.

The Airport Authority received a $100,000 grant in 2007 to develop an SMS manual, a project also awarded to SIUC aviation faculty. Earlier this fall, the airport became one of 14 certified commercial airports nationwide -- and the lone airport in Illinois -- to receive additional federal money to work on the second phase of the study: implementing the safety risk management and safety assurance components found within its approximate 85-page manual.

SIUC aviation faculty, along with Seattle-based Landry Consultants as a sub-contracting partner, recently earned the $100,000 project award from the Airport Authority.

José R. Ruiz, an associate professor in aviation management, and William Caldwell, an assistant professor, also in aviation management, are the principal investigators. Other SIUC faculty in the project includes David NewMyer, aviation management and flight chair; assistant professor Samuel Pavel, aviation management; assistant professor Mike Robertson, aviation flight; and John Voges, assistant professor and chief flight instructor, aviation flight.

“This is a very important grant that firmly establishes SIUC Aviation and Associate Professor Joe Ruiz at the leading edge of SMS planning for airports,” NewMyer said. “There is no other university team that has been involved in three separate SMS studies in the United States and none involved in both the original SMS plan development and the follow-on implementation plan development for the same airport. It is truly historic work.”

Ruiz and Gary Shafer, manager of the Southern Illinois Airport, stressed that the airport is safe. The goal of this project is to systematically address safety issues in every aspect of the airport’s environment, and create a culture where safety is the first consideration, Shafer said.

The work will include implementing safety procedures and policies, conducting safety assessments, implementing a safety reporting or data collection system, analyzing the information, and conducting an internal audit and inspection of the airport, Ruiz said.

The project has a 13-month timetable and should be complete in late October 2011, Shafer said.

“All we are trying to do is enhance the level of safety,” Ruiz said. “Oftentimes you run a safe operation and you kind of take it for granted, and as a result, you become a bit more reactive than proactive in trying to maintain that level of safety.

“It’s no reflection on the present safety of any airport in the country; it’s simply, ‘let’s make it better, let’s come up with a process where folks are a bit more cognizant of safety, and as a result, we make the airport a safer environment,” he said.

While the existing SMS plan updates occur annually to accommodate changes within the airport environment, activity within the airport facility is constant. In addition to the University’s aviation programs currently at the airport, construction continues on the 200,000-square-foot SIUC Transportation Education Center. The facility will house the University’s aviation and automotive programs. Completion is set for fall 2012.

Other construction on airport property includes the Armory Illinois National Guard Readiness Center, which should be substantially complete by the end of November, according to the Illinois Capital Development Board. The airport also is in the process of building a new aircraft rescue firefighting and snow removal equipment facility, which is 95 percent federally funded. The $2.7 million project, along with a companion $540,000 FAA grant for adjacent roads and parking, should be complete in November 2012, Shafer said.

With the construction, increased activity, and new elements introduced onto airport property it is important to continually assess whether any of the activities have an impact on safety, along with a need to identify and address any potential problems, Ruiz said.

Shafer “is a strong advocate of safety management systems,” Ruiz said. “He has been a tremendous help in trying to acquire these grants and promoting safety management systems and a culture of safety at the airport.”

While the federal government is still evaluating the program, Ruiz believes there is a “very, very strong likelihood” that all commercial airports in the United States will have a mandate to develop a safety management plan. That will include other commercial airports in Illinois, including Mount Vernon Outland Airport and the Williamson County Regional Airport in Marion, Ruiz said.

“It is a unique opportunity, and the work that will be done by Joe (Ruiz) and the team, and those of the other 13 airports will help set the framework for the how other airports in the country will structure their plans,” Shafer said.

The SMS “takes the management of the safety aspect of an airport to the next and highest level,” Shafer said. “We are already a safe environment because of the nature of aviation, but there is momentum in the country to take airports to an even higher level, and we are fortunate to be among the airports leading the way to show other airports how to do that.”

This is the third SMS-related project that SIUC aviation faculty have been involved with. In addition to the two with Southern Illinois Airport, the faculty put together a plan for the North Las Vegas Airport in North Las Vegas, Nev. That makes SIUC the only post-secondary institution in the nation that has led three SMS projects, Ruiz said.

And while there is a long-standing and positive relationship with Southern Illinois Airport, Ruiz admits that obtaining the grant for either project was not a given. The aviation faculty competed against other firms from throughout the nation.

“As strong an advocate as Gary Shafer is, he would have selected the agency or organization that will do the best work for him. We have been very fortunate,” Ruiz said.

Shafer said not only did the aviation faculty have the combined expertise of professors on campus who understand safety, but they also reached out to a sub-consultant “that has developed a nationwide reputation in the safety management area.”