Glitches in FAA system

A new billion-dollar information technology system has safety glitches that the Federal Aviation Administration is ignoring, according to a major air traffic controller association.

Several interruptions to the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS), part of FAA’s multi-billion dollar modernization effort, have occurred at the 18-month-old Boston Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) officials said yesterday.

STARS replaces outdated technology with new color displays, processors and computer software at controller facilities nationwide. But STARS has been hit with repeated delays and budget overruns since the original development and deployment contract was awarded in 1996 to Raytheon Systems Company. At the time, the project carried an established acquisition cost baseline of $940 million for 172 systems. In the nine years that have passed, the figure has climbed to $1.43 billion and covers only 47 air traffic control facilities.

A 2003 report issued by the Transportation Department's inspector general called for the re-evaluation of STARS, criticizing it for high cost and developmental delays. As a result, in April 2004, FAA officials changed STARS’ cost and schedule estimates for the third time, estimating that it would cost $1.46 billion to deploy STARS at the 50 most important TRACON facilities. Last September, the IG and FAA agreed that the agency will curtail deployment to 47 of the most critical TRACONs. So far, 36 STARS are operational, FAA officials said.

At Boston Logan International Airport, STARS sometimes fails to display aircraft information, distracting controllers, who must fix the data, NATCA officials said.

The NACTA officials also said funding for all FAA national airspace system modernization programs has been scaled back. The fiscal 2006 budget requests $2.4 billion to update the national airspace system, down from the $2.5 billion figure proposed for fiscal 2005. The actual fiscal 2004 budget allocated $2.9 billion.

FAA spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler said the STARS initiative is fully funded for any changes and enhancements through 2031.

She said that the particular instances of data dropping at Boston appear to be brief and intermittent.

“When the data blocks drop out, controllers still see the images of the planes on their screens,” Trexler said. “They just don't see the attached data blocks with the flight number[s].” Controllers “always have the flight strips,” or paper records of flight paths and other data, she said.

“We are working with controllers at Boston to correct this problem, but it does not affect safety,” she said.

Safety will become more of an issue if the FAA continues to neglect the new system, said Andy Blanchard, NATCA’s Boston TRACON facility representative said.

“We haven’t used flight strips at Boston for a number of years,” Blanchard said. “The focus that was on STARS is not there anymore.”

Mike Blake, New England Regional Vice President for NATCA, said in a press release that he agreed there are problems.

“You’ve got a brand new facility here with new STARS equipment but the FAA will not properly fund and support the program,” Blake said. “What a waste of money and time to put it into a new, major facility and then say, ‘hey guys, you’re on your own.’ ”

Other defects with new equipment at the Boston TRACON raise more urgent safety concerns. Boston’s Rapid Deployment Voice Switch (RDVS) system, which controls all the radio frequencies and landline telephones, experiences frequent, sudden losses of radio connections with pilots, NATCA officials said.

“When you vector the airplanes to a common point…and all of the sudden transmissions are not going out, it can lead to possible safety issues. It compounds the complexity of working the airplanes…and it seems to happen when there’s more volume,” Blanchard said.

Trexler acknowledged reports of loss of radio transmissions, but said this does not pose a safety risk.

“The radio is lost very briefly and controllers just press a button to go seamlessly to two back-up systems, so there is no safety issue,” he said. “The agency completed a full report on this several weeks ago that was signed off on by the controllers. If there continue to be glitches, we will work with controllers to resolve them as they arise.”

Blanchard admitted that the disconnections are not regular but stressed there is a clear safety issue when air traffic controllers have to take their eyes off the radar scopes. “We call that heads down time,” he said.

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