Washington Report: Stars not yet shining

 - May 8, 2008, 6:32 AM

In a report prepared for several members of Congress, the General Accounting Office (GAO) said the FAA’s standard terminal automation replacement system (Stars) “bears little resemblance to the program envisioned in 1996.”

Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.) and Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) asked the GAO to review how the currently projected cost and deployment schedule for Stars compares with the original cost and schedule; how often the FAA has changed its approved estimates; how the FAA has responded to the Transportation Department inspector general’s concerns about the agency’s plans for deploying Stars in Philadelphia; and what the effect of changes has been in the deployment schedule.

Because the Stars program has changed so drastically, the GAO said comparisons of costs and schedules is difficult. The FAA has officially changed the cost, schedule and requirements for Stars twice.

In 1996 the FAA contracted with Raytheon for a system using commercially available technology that could be deployed throughout the National Airspace System (NAS) with minimal software development. The plan was to install Stars in 172 facilities at a cost of $940 million (later increased to 188 facilities), with implementation to begin in 1998 and be completed in 2005.

However, when FAA controllers first tested an early version of the commercially available system in 1997, they raised some concerns about the way aircraft position and other data were displayed and updated on the controllers’ radar screens.

The FAA decided to develop a more customized system and deploy an incremental approach, increasing the cost and pushing back the schedule. In October 1999 the FAA estimated the cost for its new approach at $1.4 million with a schedule to begin deploying Stars this year at 188 facilities and installation at all facilities by 2008. The second change occurred last March, when the FAA lowered its cost estimate from $1.4 billion to $1.33 billion. But it also reduced the number of facilities receiving Stars from 188 to 74 and changed the date to complete installation at all facilities from 2008 to 2005.

Callahan and Tauscher were told in September that the date for deploying Stars to the first location is still this year, which reflects the FAA’s decision to deploy the system first to those facilities with frequent equipment failures and then to determine how to deploy it cost-effectively at remaining facilities. “Since some facilities had already received new automated terminal equipment when Stars was delayed,” said the GAO, “these facilities may not get the full Stars system.”

Last June, the DOT inspector general questioned whether the FAA’s commitment to deploy Stars in Philadelphia later this month, instead of first testing it in Memphis as planned, would allow adequate testing and address critical software problems identified before the deployment.

According to the GAO, the FAA believes it will learn more from testing in Philadelphia, which is more representative of terminal facilities, than it would have learned in the less busy Memphis airspace. The lawmakers were assured that although the FAA will use Stars to control live traffic at PHL, the current ATC system will remain available as a backup.