STARS to proceed, despite criticism

The Federal Aviation Administration plans to install a new air traffic control system in Philadelphia in November, despite several unresolved problems raised in an inspector general report released June 5.

The agency "fundamentally disagrees" with the conclusions of the report and contends "it will not deploy a system that is unsafe," Jane Garvey, FAA Administrator, wrote in a memorandum to Kenneth Mead, Transportation Department IG, issued later that day.

Raytheon Co. is developing and installing the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS). During the next decade, the company will swap aging equipment for new color displays, processors and computer software at 173 air traffic control facilities and 199 Defense Department sites.

As of May 2, the FAA had yet to fix 221 deficiencies characterized by the agency as either "critical" or "truly critical" to meeting a November deadline, Mead said in the report.

"We are concerned with the inexactitude and ambiguity inherent in the 'not perfect but acceptable' standard," he said, "as well as the implications it may have for air traffic controllers and maintenance technicians."

Furthermore, the agency has deferred independent testing of the system until after its deployment, he said.

"We have little doubt that STARS hardware and software can be installed by November, but in our opinion, it is doubtful that it will be operationally suitable by [then] to control live air traffic," he concluded.

Garvey said completing the STARS evaluation after it goes operational is standard procedure for the FAA.

"STARS is one of the most thoroughly tested systems in the world," Raytheon officials said in a statement. "Every major software release has undergone factory testing and operational test and evaluation at the FAA Technical Center."

According to the company, 131 "trouble reports" remain open.

"You identify trouble reports as reason for concern and doubt," Garvey said. "The FAA sees the timely discovery of these trouble reports as evidence of a rigorous testing process and aggressive risk management."

Controversy is nothing new for STARS. Cost overruns and delays have plagued the system. The FAA has been spending about $10 million a month this year on the contract, which is 80 percent over the initial budget estimate of $940 million, Mead said.

And he is not alone in his concerns. The technicians who maintain air traffic control equipment refused to certify STARS in Syracuse, N.Y., prompting the FAA to order their approval, according to the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS), the union that represents the employees.

"Congress needs to investigate why STARS is over budget and behind schedule," PASS President Michael Fanfalone said in a news release June 5. "But, more importantly, why is the FAA trying to install an air traffic control system, come hell or high water, that will compromise the public's safety? That has to stop."

STARS has been used in pilot projects at airports in Syracuse and El Paso, Texas, since 1999. Controllers in El Paso have registered several complaints about the system, according to the IG report.

However, Raytheon officials said four relatively minor issues were identified and are being addressed. And the National Air Traffic Controllers Association stands behind Garvey's response to the report, a spokesman for the union said June 6.

Mead said the agency needs to clarify what it intends to deliver in November.

"On Nov. 17, the FAA will go operational at Philadelphia with a STARS system that is far superior to the legacy system it replaces," Garvey said. "All critical reports will be resolved. The system will be thoroughly tested and will be proven to be safe, efficient and maintainable."

***

STARS on the hot seat

Kenneth Mead, the Transportation Department inspector general, questioned the Federal Aviation Administration's plan to deploy the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) in Philadelphia in November.

Raytheon Co. is developing and installing STARS, which replaces the older Automated Radar Terminal Systems used today at 173 Terminal Radar Approach Control (Tracon) facilities. Tracon controllers manage planes within a 50-mile radius of an airport. The new system presents radar and flight plan data on high-resolution color displays that also show six levels of weather data.

Mead highlighted the following STARS issues in a June 3 report:

* The FAA plans to leave an unspecified number of critical "trouble reports," or problems, unresolved before deploying STARS in Philadelphia.

* The agency has deferred independent testing of the product until after implementation. The "FAA should take this opportunity to clarify explicitly what the expectations are for STARS when it is deployed to Philadelphia," Mead said.

The agency "fundamentally" disagrees with the report, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said in a June 5 memorandum to Mead.

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