Funding slows STARS rollout

Financial constraints may force air traffic controllers to wait to use STARS

The Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, known as STARS, overcame major development obstacles to get to this point: Air traffic controllers want to use it.

Now financial constraints may force them to wait.

STARS will swap aging equipment for new color displays, processors and computer software at controller facilities nationwide. The long-delayed and over-budget program, which is being developed and installed by Raytheon Corp., took heat in June 2002 from the Transportation Department's inspector general (IG) for unresolved problems.

Despite that criticism, the Federal Aviation Administration switched the system on at Philadelphia International Airport in November 2002. Soon thereafter, the FAA and the controllers' union deemed STARS a success.

Seemingly on track, the agency planned to deploy the system to 18 additional airports this year, but that number dropped to seven following the Feb. 3 release of the fiscal 2004 budget request, according to John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).

On Feb. 12, a high-ranking FAA official said that deploying 10 was a possibility, Carr told reporters this morning at a breakfast sponsored by the Aviation Safety Alliance.

The stakes are high for STARS. The program is one of several slated to make modernization a reality during the next five years. Since Raytheon won the job in 1996, spending on system development has soared to about $1 billion. Meanwhile, STARS remains on the IG's watch list.

For his part, Carr maintains that the technology issues are resolved and that the 16,500 employees NATCA represents are anxiously awaiting the upgrade.

Controllers in Tucson, Ariz., underwent training and readied their equipment in anticipation of getting STARS next month, but the FAA "cannot finish the job," he said. "It will be obsolete by the time the last systems are deployed. We have got to get the hardware and software into the field."

The agency confirmed that the rollout schedule has been extended because of the continuing resolution and the markup for appropriations for this year. "It's not that we're cutting back the deployment," said Rebecca Trexler, an FAA spokeswoman. "We're spreading it out over more years than we had hoped."

Funding for the agency in fiscal 2004, meanwhile, stays flat at $14 billion in the Bush administration's request. The proposal sets aside $164.8 million for STARS—a $2.3 million increase over last year, but a $19.3 million drop from fiscal 2002.

"The FAA is, quite simply, at a crossroads," Carr said. "They can make do with less or demand more. Personally, I am not satisfied running the national airspace system on the cheap."

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