FAA delays STARS rollout

The Federal Aviation Administration late last month said it will delay rollout of its critical $1 billion air traffic control modernization program by at least nine months to fix potentially hazardous design flaws identified by air traffic controllers and technicians.

The Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS), awarded two years ago to Raytheon Co., will replace the antiquated systems that process and display air traffic data for a 50-mile radius around the nation's airports.

Originally, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was to be the first airport to receive as early as this month what the FAA called an "early version" of STARS. However, this deadline has now been pushed to March of next year as the STARS team attempts to fix "human factor" design flaws that were identified by air traffic controllers and maintenance technicians as flaws that may create safety hazards.

The human factor refers to design elements, such as computer displays and keyboards, that affect how users interact with the system.

Late last year, Congress told the FAA that before the system is rolled out, the agency must meet with controllers and technicians to address concerns such as menus that block the view of air traffic controllers and keyboards that require controllers to look away from their screens. Meanwhile, the technicians who maintain and certify the systems have complained that STARS does not have an audible alarm to indicate errors or system failures.

The FAA now plans to delay fielding STARS for nine months to work on the problems. "That schedule will ensure that the human-factors issues are addressed before operations begin," said an FAA spokesman. The FAA said STARS will not be fielded until the issues raised by the controllers and technicians are solved.

But Thomas Brantley, national vice president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, the union that represents technicians who maintain air traffic control systems, said little progress has been made on fixing the problems highlighted by its members. "I don't think the March deadline is going to happen," Brantley said. The alarm fixes are essential for technicians to identify potential system problems before they...lead to a system shutdown, he said.

The Terminal Radar Approach Control (Tracon) facilities are in desperate need of STARS, and any delay in the program could cause serious safety problems because the current displays will begin to fail, said Randy Schwitz, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).

"The New York Tracon is probably in worse need of this new equipment than any facility in the country. By December [displays] will begin to fail, and there are no replacements," Schwitz said. "The longer the program is delayed, the more safety becomes a concern because these scopes will begin to fail." As displays permanently fail, controllers will be forced to cover more airspace on a single radar scope, which means fewer planes will be able to land, thereby causing delays, he said.

According to NATCA, the problems with STARS go beyond human/computer interaction issues. The way some data is displayed on the radar scope is "unusable" for controllers, he said. For example, data that shows whether an aircraft is actually turning as it comes in for landing is not clear on the screen, a problem that has not yet been fixed.

A workstation and color monitor, which will operate with the current air traffic control system computer and software, will be installed at National in March 1999. Meanwhile, the FAA said it will not know until August what impact the changes will have on the schedule and cost of the full deployment of STARS.

"Probably because we are making changes, there will be added cost and some delay in the initial system capability," the FAA spokesman said. "We won't know until August to what extent."

Raytheon could not be reached for comment.

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