Controllers: Design flaws plague STARS

A critical $1 billion air traffic control program that is already under intense congressional scrutiny needs a design overhaul to address potential safety hazards according to air traffic controllers.

Under the Federal Aviation Administration's Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System contract awarded last year Raytheon Co. is replacing the systems that process and display air traffic data for a 50-mile radius around the nation's airports.

However according to air traffic controllers familiar with STARS while replacement systems are desperately needed the new computer/human interface design may actually hinder controllers in their work because of problems in the display and in its large and complex keyboard.

"STARS requires more steps to accomplish what we do today " said Tim Helsing an air traffic controller at Baltimore/Washington International Airport. "The keyboard we use today facilitates quicker data entry which equates to less heads-down time. The air traffic controller community supports new technology but we want to be sure new technology facilitates our ability to safely do our jobs." Some say these human-factors issues should have been addressed earlier.

"Raytheon is falling behind further and further and if they ever try to fix this it will fall further behind " said Dick Swauger technology coordinator at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). "If they insist on putting STARS as it is in facilities the taxpayers will pay millions of dollars to train terminal controllers on a system that will leave them less efficient."

The FAA and Raytheon maintain that the program is going well and that the overall program is intact and on schedule. "We don't have any technical problems " said Michael Hoeffler manager of transportation systems at Raytheon. "There's no doubt the system works. Raytheon makes these systems for many countries and each country wants the computer/human interface [designed differently]. There's nothing that's technically hard [about doing that] we just need to decide what has to be done and have FAA and NATCA agree to it " he said.

An FAA spokesman said the agency "will not put a system into service that is unacceptable to users. Just as we have in the past we will work with controllers to improve systems...so they can be used in daily operations."

The human-factors issue came to a head about six weeks ago Hoeffler said when controllers who felt they were being ignored asked Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's Transportation Subcommitte to look into the progress of STARS. Wolf asked the Transportation Department's Office of the Inspector General to report its findings. Meanwhile the General Accounting Office is also looking into the quality of the program's software development processes at the request of Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ken.) ranking member of the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee's Aviation Subcommittee.

Just last week Raytheon FAA and NATCA representatives met for several days to discuss the problems and potential solutions. They will get together again in two weeks to begin detailed working sessions. Controllers have been clamoring for replacement systems for several years. Among other improvements

STARS will replace monochrome screens with color displays which will be easier to view and which can incorporate weather graphics and other color-coded information. STARS will be installed in some 172 FAA sites and 199 Defense Department Terminal Radar Approach Control (Tracon) facilities.

Unfortunately the controllers said the new displays use menus that block their view of the air traffic image. Additionally in working the new keyboards controllers may find themselves looking down at their hands drawing their attention away from the airspace they are supposed to be monitoring. Controllers consider the heads-up posture a requisite for safe operations.

"In my opinion STARS is in quite a bit of trouble ' said Rick White former NATCA STARS national representative and current Boston Tracon facility representative. "The FAA has a way too aggressive schedule. The schedule is the [FAA's] overriding concern as opposed to human factors. That turned out to be a bad thing for controllers because that leaves no time to [change the product]. We want to do the best job we can and feel the way the equipment is now won't allow us to do that."

Meanwhile the air traffic controllers are pushing for what they say is an easier and less expensive solution to STARS called "Ollie." Ollie developed by researchers with the FAA Technical Center in Atlantic City N.J. would simply plug into the existing system located in Tracons and would give controllers an easy-to-use keyboard and color display Swauger said.

Lockheed Martin Corp. one month ago won a $500 000 contract from the FAA to see what it will take to put Ollie into production.

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