Washington Report: Stars constellation shines but shrinks

 - July 30, 2008, 11:06 AM

Although the FAA has finally commissioned its first standard terminal automation replacement system (Stars), the agency has drastically reduced the number of systems it plans to install at the nation’s airports. And that has caused some people to question the FAA’s commitment to ATC modernization.

The first Stars was commissioned last month at the Philadelphia Tracon, where it has been operating for seven months. Controllers use the system to separate and sequence aircraft, provide traffic alerts and weather advisories and vector arriving and departing aircraft.

The FAA now boasts that the adoption of  Stars and other new equipment collocated in the Philadelphia International Airport tower makes it one of the most modernized facilities in the country.

Included is a new airport surveillance radar Model 11 that supplies digital data to Stars; a runway-alerting system called the airport movement area safety system; precision runway monitor radar that allows simultaneous operations on closely spaced parallel runways; an automated pre-departure flight clearance system called tower datalink service; and a new Tracon facility.

Under a joint FAA and Defense Department program, the original plan was to place Stars at more than 300 civilian and military facilities nationwide. But the FAA has been scaling back its plans from the approximately 180 it had originally envisioned installing. Despite the pioneering installation at Philadelphia last November, and the June 9 commissioning, the FAA plans to deploy Stars this year only in Portland, Ore.; Boston; Miami; Milwaukee; Port Columbus, Ohio; San Antonio; and Seattle/Tacoma.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) claimed that the future of Stars is “uncertain” and questioned the FAA’s commitment to modernization. NATCA president John Carr called the Philadelphia commissioning “bittersweet” because “the FAA’s previously well charted course for modernizing [ATC] has hit choppy waters.”

NATCA, the union that represents the nation’s 15,000 controllers, noted that Stars is one of many projects stalling in the FAA’s juggling act of shifting priorities. Citing budget constraints, the FAA shelved its controller-pilot datalink communications (CPDLC) program in May. CPDLC frees valuable radio frequency capacity by allowing controllers and pilots to communicate via text messages.

“Clearly, the Stars deployment waterfall has turned into a trickle,” said Carr. “Stars works and there is no reason why every terminal facility in the country shouldn’t have it.” Controllers cite its reliability and vast improvements over old systems.

Benefits from the new system include synchronizing data from up to 16 different radars, capturing accurate local weather and tracking as many as 1,350 aircraft at a time over a 60-mile radius. Using the old equipment, controllers said they could process and display just one radar system and a maximum of 750 aircraft.

The FAA said it plans to deploy Stars at facilities deemed most critical over the next several years as funding permits. Sites with the greatest need–the highest growth in air traffic combined with older, less reliable equipment–will receive Stars the soonest.

Stars was originally scheduled to be deployed in 1998 at a cost of $940 million. Even with the drastic reduction in the number of systems, the cost has ballooned to $1.67 billion. At a rate of seven a year, it would take the FAA about 10 years to install the 74 systems it has ordered so far.