FAA re-evaluates Stars implementation

 - January 29, 2007, 9:56 AM

The FAA is taking what the Transportation Department inspector general (IG) calls a “long overdue step” with regard to its standard terminal automation replacement system (Stars), trying to decide how best to salvage a program begun in 1996 and still not fully deployed.

In April, the FAA revised its approach and committed deployment of Stars to only 50 of 162 planned sites. Now, the agency is considering retaining some existing systems as an alternative to Stars and is re-evaluating Stars costs and deployments. During Fiscal Year 2005, which began October 1, it plans to decide whether to approve additional Stars purchases.

The essential question now facing the FAA is how best to finish the terminal modernization effort, the DOT IG said, adding that the FAA needs to move forward expeditiously to address the needs of its small, medium and large terminal sites based on cost, time and capability.

In the FY 2004 appropriations bill, Congress directed the FAA to provide life-cycle cost estimates for the complete Stars program to the House and Senate Appropriations committees and directed Inspector General Kenneth Mead to review and validate those estimates.

Mead’s office expressed “special concern” over the state of aging displays at four large sites–Chicago, Denver, St. Louis and Minneapolis. Under the FAA’s current plan, the agency will not begin installing Stars and replacing the aging displays at the large sites until FY 2008.

The DOT IG found that the aging displays need to be replaced well before the 2008 timeframe because, among other things, they are experiencing significant reliability problems. For example, controller displays at Denver are locking up randomly, and FAA officials from that facility told the IG investigators that the problem has occurred 100 times in the past three-and-a-half years and is now occurring more than once a week.

The FAA’s 1996 cost estimate for Stars was $940 million, and the scheduled completion date was FY 2005 for 172 systems. “However, Stars is not the program that was planned eight years ago,” the IG said.

Although the Stars acquisition was intended to maximize the use of commercially available equipment, significant human factors issues were identified in an early Stars prototype that required extensive software and hardware development. As a result, in FY 1999, the FAA added three years and more than $460 million to its Stars schedule and cost estimates.

It is important to note, said the transportation IG, that the FAA has pursued Stars through a cost-plus contract with manufacturer Raytheon, which places most of the risk of cost growth with the government. As of 2003, the baseline cost increased to $1.72 billion and the scheduled completion date slipped to FY 2010.

Because of the delays in developing Stars, the FAA replaced 1970s-era systems at 141 terminal sites with a different system–Common ARTS– between 1998 and 2003 for about $239 million. Since then, Common ARTS, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, has performed and meets the FAA’s requirements, the IG said.

However, because the FAA considered Common ARTS an interim system, the agency acquired color displays for only seven of 11 Common ARTS sites and did not replace the aging displays at most sites. Each Stars site also receives color displays.

Last April, the FAA decided to revise its Stars approach again after new estimates indicated development and deployment costs would grow to more than $2 billion and the schedule would slip further to 2011.

After receiving the $2 billion estimate in April, the FAA formally changed its modernization plan and committed Stars to just 50 sites at an officially estimated cost of $1.46 billion for development and deployment as opposed to the original estimate of $940 million for more than 170 sites.

The FAA has authorized deployment of 47 of the 50 Stars currently approved, and through last August, it had purchased 39 Stars. Once Stars is deployed at the 47th site, the DOT IG said, all 172 existing terminal sites will be equipped with either Stars or a modern Common ARTS, including the last three of the 50 approved Stars sites.
The FAA’s planned 50th Stars site is Chicago, a large Common ARTS site with aging displays. This site will be the first large Common ARTS to be replaced by Stars, and the DOT report said that the FAA risks encountering “significant hurdles” trying to replace it.

But FAA officials in Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis are concerned they might also begin experiencing Denver-like failures, and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association is particularly concerned about Chicago because of its importance to the overall smooth functioning of the National Airspace System.

The Transportation Department IG has recommended to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey that her agency take immediate action to replace displays at the four large terminal sites that do not have color displays.

It also recommended that the FAA make no further investment in Stars– except that needed to complete the 47 approved sites–until the agency completes its evaluation of moving forward with Stars or Common ARTS based on cost, schedule and performance parameters.