FAA modernization under fire again

Air traffic controllers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport last week charged the Federal Aviation Administration with reneging on promises to include them in the development of a new air traffic control system, which is scheduled for installation at the airport next March.

Andy Acres, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's (NATCA) union president at National Airport, said the FAA excluded the controllers in the development of a feature that allows controllers to determine how sharp and at what speed an aircraft is turning.

The feature will be incorporated into the new Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System under a contract awarded two years ago to Raytheon Co. STARS will replace the antiquated systems that controllers rely on to process and display air traffic within a 50-mile radius around the nation's airports.

STARS has been a controversial program almost from its inception. Last year air traffic controllers complained that the system's design was confusing, distracting and would make air travel unsafe. As a result, Congress told the FAA late last year 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' screens, keyboards that require controllers to look away frequently from screens and an absence of audible alarms to indicate system errors.

The FAA has been working with the unions for months and has fixed 97 of the 98 problems that controllers and technicians had identified in STARS, an FAA spokesman said. "We expect to continue to work with controllers on solving that last issue," the spokesman said. "Our intent and NATCA's intent is to reach agreement. We both agree there is a need for STARS."

Last week the FAA, industry and union representatives met to discuss a study prepared by the FAA on a feature that indicates the sharpness and speed of an aircraft while turning as well as the direction of flight, or "history trails." Controllers who are not satisfied with how the feature works were not consulted in the development of the FAA study plan, which had laid out several solutions to the problem and asked the controllers to choose the best one, Acres said.

The FAA and Raytheon "excluded the controllers from developing the history trails feature," Acres said. "We looked at the options they presented us, and none of them work. [The FAA] wants us to settle. It's a question of money because what we want would require more money."

National Airport in March will be the nation's first airport to receive what the FAA calls an early version of STARS, about nine months behind the original rollout schedule. However, Acres said National Airport controllers would rather use the current equipment than use a system that does not work to their satisfaction.

Tim Helsing, NATCA's national representative for STARS, said the union decided it would not participate in the study.

"We said we would look at it but not give out any comment until we could discuss it," Hel-sing said. "We felt like we were put in a compromising situation where we had to choose the lesser of two evils. History trails are a major issue that [have] to be resolved before we would be able to use the system."

Helsing added he is cautiously optimistic that the history trails issue will be resolved. "But in my opinion, it may require a change in the STARS hardware baseline," he said.

It is unclear what the immediate next step will be. However, the FAA spokesman said the agency is waiting for NATCA to contact the FAA.

Raytheon could not be reached for comment. n


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