Key steps towards the improvement of the State safety oversight (SSO) system

ICAO member States and signatories of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention) play a key role in safety oversight at national level but, what are the main elements for the success of this safety oversight?

In this Paper, we focus on one of the essential pillars to achieve a satisfactory oversight level: the State safety oversight system (hereinafter ‘SSO’), which constitutes -along with the State safety programme (hereinafter ‘SSP’)- the foundation to achieve a sufficient safety level to assure safe aircraft operations worldwide.

“Safety is a top priority in aviation”. It is probably the most repeated phrase in civil aviation standards and international air transport conferences.

The current air traffic growth forecasts are a cause for concern, with annual increases over the next twenty years of up to 6.5% in regions such as Asia. This helps to explain why international bodies such as the ICAO or EASA have been particularly concerned with safety in recent years.

In 2017 alone, the latest statistics show a 7% increase in the number of passengers compared with the previous year. The continued growth in traffic provides tremendous prospects for aviation and the global economy, but also poses a unique challenge as regards safety where the objective remains to reduce the number of fatalities and the risks associated.

Added to the predicted increase in operations, different emerging security and safety issues have raised concern in the international aviation community. New technologies and business models such as drones or space travel introduce new risks to the aviation system, which may affect safety and security in the future.

States and their aviation authorities play a critical role. In order to keep pace with the changes in the industry, States must implement effective State safety oversight (SSO) systems and State safety programme (SSP) aligned with global safety priorities.

States seeking international recognition and excellence in these processes will have to address the new challenges and undertake major improvements in their aviation systems.


The SSO is a concept that is extended throughout national aviation sectors worldwide, mainly among civil aviation administrations or authorities

These civil aviation authorities or administrations, known as CAA or NSA (National Supervisory Authorities), are aware that the lack of a proper State safety oversight (SSO) system can jeopardise the safety of international civil aviation operations, hence its importance.

What is Safety oversight?

If we look at the definition in Annex 19 of the Chicago Convention – Safety Management (2nd  Edition of July 2016, which will be applicable as from 7 November 2019), Safety oversight refers to:

A function performed by a State to ensure that individuals and organizations performing an aviation activity comply with safety-related national laws and regulations

The definition and effective implementation of these functions and systems is the direct responsibility of the States (activity that can be delegated to regional safety oversight organisations “RSOO”) who are in charge of implementing the well-known eight critical elements (CE), which are mainly the mechanisms for ensuring operational safety of the SSO.

The ICAO Auditing Program USOAP monitors these elements in order to assess the State capacity in terms of safety oversight and investigation of aviation incidents and accidents.

These eight CE of a SSO system are interconnected and complement each other. Thus, the CE-1 to CE-5 are presented as “CE for establishment”, whereas the CE-6 to CE-8 are “CE for implementation”.

Critical Elements (CE) of the State safety oversight system (SSO)

To assure a correct implementation, the States—through the respective aviation authorities—resort to the recommended Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) and auxiliary procedures contained in the Convention Annexes and similar ICAO documents.

However, a significant number of States have had trouble applying their responsibilities in regards to safety oversight. Therefore, these references by themselves are not always sufficient and expert support is required in many cases in order to turn the ICAO specifications into real improvements that adapt to the complexities of every SSO and the aviation context of each State.

Hence, the States should prioritise and allocate sufficient resources (human and financial) to the aviation authorities in charge of safety oversight so they can fulfil their duties efficiently.

These critical elements (CE) of the State safety oversight (SSO) system will form, along with other responsibilities of the States (elements of the SSP), the cornerstone of the own State safety program (SSP).

In this sense, the new vision of the ICAO regards the SSP as a programme to comply with the responsibilities to manage State operational safety, which includes the implementation of the SSO among others.

After explaining the relationship between the SSO, SSP and the CEs, we can analyse the key steps towards the improvement of the SSO included in the title of this document.

Current situation and first steps

Air traffic worldwide is expected to double in 12 years and the ICAO—aware of the risks involved—has aligned its global objectives with those of the United Nations, and is committed to achieving the ‘zero fatalities’ goal regarding business operations by 2030.

To achieve that, the ICAO is developing a new edition of its global aviation safety plan (hereinafter ‘GASP’) for 2020-2022 period, and has included six goals and targets to be implemented by the States, regions and the aviation industry.

Therefore, States should focus on implementing the necessary steps that will enable them to gradually reach these goals. Special emphasis should initially be placed on Goal 2 in order to establish and implement the necessary mechanisms to strengthen the safety oversight capabilities of their respective States.

The reason for focusing on Goal 2 is that, as mentioned above, a strengthened SSO (Goal 2) will lay the foundations for an effective SSP (Goal 3) and ultimately reducing operational safety risks (Goal 1).

The challenge

The first key step towards attaining this objective within the SSO framework is to implement a set of effective and comprehensive aviation laws that no only adjust to the conditions and complexity of the State aviation activity, but also comply with the requirements of the Convention on International Civil Aviation.

The States must guarantee that these laws meet the needs of the aviation community through a balanced approach that clearly defines the responsibilities and duties of all stakeholders, authorities and industry.

This activity cannot be undertaken unilaterally. Different actions must be performed first, in order to ensure the successful implementation of these basic laws. 

Our solution

Projects of this magnitude to support to States and CAA must be based on three main pillars:

  1. PILLAR I. Analysis and improvement of the regulatory and institutional framework;
  2. PILLAR II. Development and strengthening of the Authority’s oversight capacity (organisational capacity); and
  3. PILLAR III. Development and strengthening of training programmes (technical capacity).

This approach facilitates the correct coordination of the different lines of work, ensuring that the current obligations of the CAA are executed smoothly. In addition, these three pillars are established to tackle the eight CEs mentioned above, for every State safety oversight (SSO) system defined by the ICAO.

Strategy for the effective implementation of the SSO

The correct roll-out of this methodology will enable the CAAs to continuously improve the effective implementation (% EI) of the eight CEs of the SSO in all the relevant areas (LEG, ORG, PEL, OPS, AIR, AIG, ANS and AGA) considering the complexity of its aviation system.

A collaborative effort can improve the effectiveness of the implementation of the CE—especially in regions where aviation authorities lack the personnel, financial or technical resources.

This collaboration can include collaboration agreements with supra-regional bodies, offering customised safety solutions such as RSOOs (Regional Safety Oversight Organizations) and RAIOs (Regional Accident and Incident Investigation Organizations), as well as agreements to delegate national safety oversight activities within the recent ICAO’s initiative knows as GASOS (Global Aviation Safety Oversight System).

Once a sufficiently robust mechanism is implemented, particular emphasis must be placed on the rest of the SSO elements. Some of the main actions for the global improvement of the Critical Elements are listed as follows:

1. PILLAR I. Analysis and improvement of the regulatory and institutional framework

  • CE 1. Review and GAP analysis of the primary aviation law vs. ICAO SARPs and best practices
  • CE 2. Review and GAP analysis of the specific operational regulations vs. ICAO SARPs and best practices

 2. PILLAR II. Development and strengthening of the Authority’s oversight capacity (organisational capacity)

  • CE 3. Implementation of quality standards in the CAA
  • CE 4. Organisational analysis of the CCA and reinforcement of the oversight functions
  • CE 5. Development and implementation of the guidance material for inspectors: proceedings, work instructions, check list, non-conformity templates, etc.
  • CE 6. Development and implementation of guidance material and software to issue licences and/or certifications
  • CE 7. Development and implementation of oversight processes and software for inspections and/or audits, as well as field support during actual oversight activities
  • CE 8. Development and implementation of mechanisms to manage oversight processes and surveillance processes and enforcement policies

3. PILLAR III. Development and strengthening of training programmes (technical capacity)

  • CE 4. Development of training programs for inspectors
  • CE 4. OJT support and mentoring during real oversight activities

Some of the most important advantages resulting from the application of this methodology is that it promotes an efficient and sustainable SSO with the following main characteristics:

  • It ensures a well-balanced allocation of responsibilities (between the State and the industry) for the international civil aviation safety
  • It facilitates the coordination among the different stakeholders within the CAA
  • It establishes a robust regulatory mechanism that will facilitate the subsequent certification and surveillance processes
  • It coordinates the guidance material that civil aviation inspectors need to undertake safety oversight tasks
  • It facilitates the SMS effective implementation of operators, service providers and other organisations
  • It ensures a continuous improvement of the human and financial resources that state authorities require to undertake their responsibilities, roles and activities
  • It implements a suitable mechanism to train inspectors
  • It meets the requirements contained in the ICAO Annexes and other standards for the correct implementation of the SSO.

The main objective of these projects is to increase the level of effective implementation of the ICAO standards (%EI) of the States

Direct benefits for the authorities

Preparing for an ICAO USOAP auditing or a validation mission (ICVM) is not an easy task. It requires time, effort and technical knowledge and, in most cases, external support from experts with broad experience in these processes.

By leveraging on the experience and technical knowledge of the group of experts, companies like ALG are able to deploy multidisciplinary work groups to provide support in all the aviation critical areas: LEG, ORG, PEL, OPS, AIR, AIG, ANS and AGA.

This support can be provided before and after the ICAO auditing previously mentioned.

“Preliminary” support for undergoing ICAO USOAP/ICVM safety auditing

The potential activities that could be performed in this previous phase are presented below:

  • Initial assessment of the Protocol Questions (PQs) through the analysis of the data in the ICAO ‘OLF’ (On-Line Framework) website
  • Drafting and implementation of regulations, guidance material and manuals for inspectors, including verification and check-lists
  • Implementation of oversight mechanisms based on risks
  • Training programmes: Tailored training courses for the Authority’s personnel and OJT (On-the-job-Training) for the authorisation of civil aviation inspectors
  • ICAO SARPS: advisory for the correct implementation of the ICAO standards in all the critical aviation areas
  • Implementation of best practices of EASA standards
  • Documentary support for the certification of ANSPs, airports, operators and maintenance centres
  • Implementation of IT systems to manage the State safety oversight system
  • Reinforce the cooperation with other supra-national bodies to ensure harmonisation in change processes such as: ICAO regional offices, RSOO, RAIOs, COSCAPs and other groups of the aviation industry.

“Post-support” for undergoing ICAO USOAP / ICVM safety auditing

This support can be offered ad-hoc whenever it is needed to address any safety problem identified internally or by the ICAO. The potential activities that could be performed in this subsequent phase are presented below:

  • Support in the management of Significant Safety Concerns (SSCs) gathered by the ICAO
  • Analysis, and development/implementation of a Corrective Action Plan (CAP)


The correct implementation of these activities ensures the increase in the level of effective implementation (% EI) of the State, strengthening its safety system capacity and fostering its international recognition.

States where a high percentage of the GDP depends on tourism need to maintain the highest safety standards and thus, enhancing the reputation of the aviation system.

In this regard, and in order to achieve “zero fatalities” in commercial operations by 2030, the States should align with the ICAO’s safety vision and should promote SSOs that encourage this initiative as the basis for a solid and effective SSP, as well as:

a) Promoting a positive safety culture;

b) Recognising and promoting the aviation sector’s responsibility for the safety of the public;

c) Encouraging collaboration, teamwork and shared learning in the management of safety;

d) Protecting safety data and safety information;

e) Promoting the sharing and exchange of safety information;

f) Taking data-driven decisions;

g) Prioritising actions to address operational safety issues through a risk-based approach;

h) Allocating resources to identify and analyse hazards, and address their consequences or outcomes through a risk-based approach; and

i) Proactively managing emerging safety issues.

ALG is currently supporting different CAAs within the framework of international cooperation projects:

  • Zambia CAA, within the framework of the project ZAMBIA ASSP II Project
  • Thailand CAA (CAAT), within the framework of the project CAAT – EASA Aviation Oversight Support Project
  • CAAs and RSOOs in Central America, the Caribbean and South America, within the framework of the project EU-LAC APP

The purposes of all the projects are, among others, to improve the global safety levels and comply with the standards required by the international aviation community.

About the author

About the authors
Rubén Martínez is MSc in Aeronautical Engineering and Director at ALG
Daniel Cruz is MSc in Aeronautical Engineering and Manager at ALG
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