STARS delayed again; FAA seeks tech patch

One of the Federal Aviation Administration's largest modernization projects appears to be on the rocks, with the agency scrambling to field interim systems as delays mount and a new report indicates significant performance problems.

The $1 billion Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS), awarded in September 1997 to Raytheon Co., is intended to replace the antiquated systems that process and display air traffic data at Terminal Radar Approach Control (Tracon) facilities, which control traffic in the 50-mile radius around the nation's airports.

The FAA originally planned to install the first system, an early version of STARS, at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in June 1998 but delayed delivery by nine months to give the agency and Raytheon an opportunity to work out design problems that concerned air traffic controllers and technicians.

However, the FAA apparently plans to delay the system further, with the Washington, D.C., airport now scheduled to take delivery by Dec. 31 of an early display configuration version of STARS, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

With many airports not scheduled to receive the upgrade until a much later date, the FAA plans to deliver a "patch" to airports that work with the oldest equipment, according to NATCA. The interim system, developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. and dubbed Ollie, provides a color display and an easy-to-use keyboard that simply plugs into the existing Tracon systems.

Ollie is part of a new STARS deployment approach that the FAA and the controllers have at least conceptually agreed on, said NATCA president Michael McNally. This approach would include placing Ollie at "some critical facilities," such as the New York Tracon, that need new displays because current equipment is failing and replacement parts are not available, McNally said.

A Lockheed Martin spokeswoman confirmed that Ollie is under consideration by the FAA as an interim solution to replace aging displays until the full STARS system is ready.

The new plan also would involve rolling out an "early display configuration" of STARS to sites with low traffic activity and then gradually develop the system in the field to obtain full STARS capability, McNally said. The early version is not the complete STARS system but rather a color display and workstation linked through an interface to the current computer system.

"STARS is a disaster," Michael Fanfalone, the national president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, said in a prepared statement. "Despite spending years, and millions, on its development, the [FAA] now acknowledges it cannot be used in high-density airports." PASS represents technical and aviation systems specialists.

The FAA will announce this month the airports that will receive equipment and what that equipment will be. An agency spokesman, however, would not comment on the new deployment approach, including plans for Ollie as detailed by McNally. The agency also is expected to release a new STARS schedule this month.

The FAA and NATCA said they are still committed to STARS.

Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.), chairwoman of the Technology Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, is "frustrated and disappointed in the continuing [STARS] delay," according to her press secretary, Jonathan Dean. "She's been working to push FAA on this project and get it up and working," Dean said, adding that Morella may request another hearing on STARS, although none is scheduled at this point.

Air traffic controllers have been pushing the FAA to field Ollie since 1997. But their interest in the display system has been heightened by a new report which shows that STARS actually operates more slowly than the antiquated equipment being used by controllers.

"We don't want new equipment that is less than what we have now," said Andy Acres, Washington National Airport's STARS representative for NATCA. "Ollie is quick and easy to understand. Of the controllers that have seen Ollie, you won't find anyone who doesn't like it. There are two Ollie [radar] scopes out there now that could be installed at Washington National tomorrow."

The report, based on a test conducted last month by Lockheed Martin at the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center and witnessed by the FAA and Raytheon, showed that STARS' response times were generally double those of the current display and sometimes are "significantly beyond the FAA's specifications" for operational safety models. The FAA stressed that the test involved the early display configuration, not the full STARS system.

"In developing this early display configuration and in meeting requests for changes that controllers and technicians wanted, we encountered some response times [that] were slow," the FAA spokesman said. "We're working with Raytheon to get those response times back to specification." Full STARS is designed to be and is faster than the current system, he added.

Raytheon said in a press statement that "the report presented a picture that was inaccurate and misleading with regard to the system's speed or response times." In fact, Raytheon maintains, STARS is faster than systems currently in use and has been "successfully tested and used in airports around the world."


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