Congress putting FAA’s feet to the fire on Stars deployment

 - May 21, 2008, 6:22 AM

Even though the FAA’s new standard terminal automation replacement system (Stars) has begun a nationwide “road show” in a 28-ft-long van, the Transportation Department’s inspector general has warned Congress that deploying Stars within the current estimated cost and schedule “remains at risk.”

Stars is a joint FAA and Department of Defense (DOD) procurement program intended to replace the aging automated radar terminal system (ARTS) at 173 FAA tracons and 102 DOD terminal facilities. It will work in conjunction with digital radar systems to allow air traffic controllers to track aircraft within the terminal area.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, has been nipping at the FAA’s heels over its history of schedule slippages and cost overruns whenever it involves ATC modernization. Since taking over the chairmanship earlier this year, he has held hearings in March and June and has one promised for next month when Congress returns from summer recess.

The committee expressed concern over the management of the Stars program, which began as a component of the FAA’s failed advanced automation system (AAS), which was first announced in 1983. The Stars program was then called the terminal advanced automation system (TAAS).

Mica said “like most FAA modernization programs,” Stars has “suffered through poor management, bad decisions and unrealistic goals,” and is years behind its original schedule and hundreds of millions over budget. Noting that, in the past, hearings on ATC modernization programs were conducted every couple of years, he vowed to conduct them every few months until the systems are fully implemented.

When the FAA launched its mobile Stars tour last month, it said it was working toward full deployment of Stars by 2008. But the office of the DOT inspector general, headed by Kenneth Mead, expressed concern about the FAA’s ability to deploy Stars within the current cost and schedule because of the compressed software-testing schedule, the significant number of trouble reports that came out of recent software testing and delays in the deployment of the new airport surveillance radar-11 (ASR-11) program on which Stars heavily depends.

Alexis Stefani, assistant inspector general for auditing, told the House aviation subcommittee that deploying Stars within cost and schedule remains at risk because of an aggressive test schedule and dependencies on the ASR-11 digital radar deployment. She added that the FAA needs to take additional actions to calculate all of the costs of Stars deployment and any stopgap measures that would be needed should it fall further behind schedule.

Stefani said that since the subcommittee’s first hearing in March, costs have continued to rise and final cost projections are still incomplete. “The FAA has identified additional development and deployment costs of $171 million, increasing the current baseline to $1.57 billion,” she said. “The FAA also identified costs necessary for Stars implementation through 2004 that were not included in the baseline, such as training and facility modernization that will increase the total terminal modernization costs to $1.678 billion.”

Steven Zaidman, FAA associate administrator for research and acquisitions, testified that an early Stars capability, which the agency has named early display capability (EDC) technology, is now deployed at test sites in Syracuse, N.Y., and El Paso, Texas, as well as at a DOD site at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

“This sets the stage for national deployment of 11 additional EDC sites starting in early 2002,” Zaidman said. At the same time, the FAA is planning to put the full Stars into the first 54 sites to replace ARTS III-A equipment, which is older and most in need of replacement.

Although he said the FAA has developed a contingency plan in the event that Stars encounters further unanticipated developmental problems, Mica expressed skepticism that the agency will be able to meet its latest schedule. He said he asked the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics to conduct an independent analysis and said another hearing would be held the week of September 10.