Mitre to referee FAA, controllers' beefs

Under pressure from Congress the Federal Aviation Administration has done an about-face and agreed to go back to the drawing board with air traffic controllers to iron out its flawed billion-dollar ATC modernization project. The FAA has agreed to meet with Mitre Corp. a federally funded research and development center and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) to discuss the development of the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) a project to provide new processors software and keyboards to 172 air traffic control towers nationwide. The system is one of the core procurements in the FAA's effort to modernize its aging ATC system and it is designed to provide a complete replacement of critical air traffic control automation equipment in FAA facilities that control air traffic within 50 miles of an airport.

Previously FAA officials said they would meet with NATCA representatives only after Raytheon Corp. which was awarded the STARS contract in September 1996 had completed the system according to Ronald Morgan the FAA's director of air traffic.

For months NATCA officials have asked to have more involvement in the development of STARS the design of which the controllers claim is confusing distracting and will make air travel unsafe. In particular controllers said the system's window software frequently blocked the view of aircraft icons on the screen and requires them to look at the keyboard too often [FCW Sept. 29].

"What Ron Morgan was basically saying is `Let's get a finished product and then we'll test it to see if it works and if it doesn't then what?' " said Michael McNally NATCA president. "It's ludicrous you try to deal with issues on the front end not on the back end."

In July NATCA representatives took their criticisms to Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee for Transportation and Related Agencies who pushed for the FAA and the association to meet with Mitre. A hearing on the issue was held last week.

At the hearing McNally testified: "No more than three or four controllers nationally have had the opportunity to work with the system long enough to identify all the problem areas. It literally took congressional intervention to get a replacement NATCA STARS representative. We have not had one for over six years."

Development Concerns

George Donohue associate administrator for research and acquisition at the FAA told the subcommittee that the FAA has concerns with Raytheon's software development.

"Despite assurances from Raytheon that it will meet the December 1998 milestone for operational readiness of STARS at the first airport terminal - Boston - the FAA is concerned that Raytheon's slow startup in software development along with an unexpected increase in the amount of software code to be developed might result in a schedule slip " he said.

Raytheon officials said they have met STARS' deadlines. "The STARS contract is being completed 50 percent faster than any other automation program that the FAA has acquired " said Raytheon spokeswoman Blanche Necessary.

As for the decision to meet with Mitre Necessary said Raytheon is "very pleased with the fact that Mitre is working with all the parties involved because they have been resolving these types of air traffic control issues for years."

Among the complaints specified controllers say the system's use of opaque windows similar to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows obscure the controller's view of an aircraft symbol behind them although the information provided in the windows can be moved resized or closed as needed.

Controllers also claim that the keyboard when combined with window-driven menus requires controllers to spend too much time looking at the keyboard rather than the air traffic control display.

They also complained that the STARS display screen does not provide sufficient details about an aircraft's position and movement.

"Though automation can significantly augment the abilities of the individual human operator it can also confound them - sometimes at the worst possible moment - and magnify the impact of a mistake to an unprecedented degree " McNally said.

Congressman Wolf whom NATCA contacted about their concerns with the system said at a hearing last week on the subject that he did not want "an airplane crash massive delays and cost overruns" on his conscience.

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