DOT inspector slams terminal system

Federal Aviation Administration

A report issued by the Transportation Department's Inspector General calls for the re-evaluation of a $1.69 billion Federal Aviation Administration program intended to modernize terminal automation systems.

The IG criticized the FAA's Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System for its high cost and developmental delays. Acquisition costs for STARS have nearly doubled since the original development and deployment contract was awarded in September 1996 to Raytheon Systems Company.

At the time, the project carried an established acquisition cost baseline of $940 million. In the seven years since, that figure has risen to $1.69 billion.

Also, the FAA had originally planned on a 2005 completion date, with an estimated life cycle cost of the system of approximately $2.9 billion. But last year the targeted completion date was pushed back to 2012 and the estimated life cycle cost was raised to approximately $6.1 billion, according to the IG report.

Currently, STARS is fully deployed at only three sites: Philadelphia, Pa., El Paso, Texas and Syracuse, N.Y. According to federal aviation officials, deployment of STARS should come soon for several additional airports, including Miami, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Seattle/Tacoma, Portland, Boston, and Port Columbus, Ohio.

STARS delays forced the FAA to deploy an interim program, the Common Automated Radar Terminal System, known as Common ARTS, at 141 terminal facilities over the past five years, at a cost of $239 million.

The IG report recommended that the FAA determine what capabilities need to be added to STARS, because a comparison of the two systems identified more than 90 functions in Common ARTS that STARS lacks.

Federal air officials say the technology with the STARS system is significantly greater than that within Common ARTS. For example, STARS can gather information from 16 different radars, while Common ARTS can only read one radar system.

The STARS system has a solid ally in the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).

"STARS works," NATCA spokesperson Doug Church said. "It works in Philadelphia, and it's something the FAA should deploy."

Church disagrees with the suggestion that the FAA would be better off simply keeping Common ARTS. "[STARS] is a vast improvement over what [controllers] had before," Church said. "It's something we embrace now."

According to the IG report, limiting STARS to 73 terminal sites while retaining Common ARTS at approximately 100 locations could save more than $300 million.

Also, the IG recommends that the aviation officials develop an effective process to manage contract costs. According to the report, contractor-billed costs totaled $688 million as of March 2003, but FAA documents show only $647 million had been spent.

The air agency is looking at all alternatives, including Common ARTS, FAA spokesperson Rebecca Trexler said. The agency is working with an outside independent accounting firm on the situation, and is attempting to obtain a fixed price contract with Raytheon, she said.

"The modernization effort is extremely important," Trexler said. "But we have to do it in the most cost-effective way."

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