Stars Wars

 - April 21, 2008, 6:11 AM

The FAA and the Transportation Department’s inspector general are at loggerheads over whether the new Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (Stars) is ready to handle live traffic.

Long a critic of Stars’ cost overruns and delays, DOT IG Kenneth Mead fired the first shot early last month when he questioned the FAA’s plan to deploy Stars in Philadelphia in November. He said the agency had failed to rectify some critical trouble reports, deferred independent testing of whether the system is suitable for real-world use and did not specify what would be expected of the system on that date.

“This point is important,” Mead said, “because we understood that the FAA’s objective was that Stars would replace the existing system and be operational in November, with controllers relying on Stars to control live traffic.”

While Mead called Stars an important modernization effort because it will replace controller displays and related computer equipment at more than 160 ATC facilities, it will now cost at least $1.7 billion, an 80-percent increase over the initial estimate of $940 million. It was originally scheduled to begin national deployment in December 1998.

Stars is a joint procurement for the FAA and the DOD. Raytheon, which regards the concerns as “not well founded,” is under contract to develop and install up to 173 Stars for the FAA and 199 for the DOD in the next decade.

Mead and the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS), the union that represents the FAA employees who certify and maintain ATC equipment, claimed that the unit in El Paso, Texas, has been plagued with problems, forcing controllers to track airplanes manually because the computer system did not properly display the flights.

He noted that as of May 24, tower managers said controllers were still using the existing automated terminal radar system (ARTS) for emergency backup. Stars was designed to have its own emergency backup system, but this was not installed in the El Paso Stars version because Stars software was being modified.

It was widely reported that when PASS technicians refused to certify the system in Syracuse, N.Y., the FAA invoked an “emergency clause” in the PASS contract and ordered them to approve the equipment.

Meanwhile, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey fired off a letter to Mead expressing disappointment that his memo to her was released publicly before her agency had a chance to respond. “We fundamentally disagree with your conclusions,” she said. “The FAA sees the timely discovery of these trouble reports as evidence of a rigorous testing process and aggressive risk management.”

She also took sharp issue with his assessment of Stars in El Paso, saying that the full Stars, including the primary and backup system, is operational and not dependent on ARTS. Garvey said ARTS is being supported as a third-level backup, and argued that it is “highly unlikely” that its use will be required.

Garvey said the controllers’ interfaces have been used for the control of live traffic at El Paso since December 1999, while the tracking and control portions of the software have been in operational use at Eglin Air Force Base since June 2000. The “full service 1” software was recently placed in operation at El Paso and Syracuse to uncover any additional issues that were not identified through normal testing, she said.

Leaving a “legacy system” in place for many months is not unusual, Garvey told Mead. Controllers and technicians have identified a small number of problems that need to be addressed and have agreed to continue operating the system until corrections were made late last month.

“Once we were assured that the system was safe, we went operational with early releases of full Stars at El Paso and Syracuse to identify problems,” Garvey said. “We succeeded, and as a result the risk of discovering problems at subsequent sites has been greatly reduced.”