Critics say STARS launch is too soon

FAA adminis-trator Jane Garvey says STARS has undergone adequate testing.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently began using a full version of the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System at two airports despite a new round of criticism from the Transportation Department inspector general and union officials.

El Paso International Airport in Texas and Syracuse Hancock International Airport in New York are the first to use the operational STARS'after years of delays and cost overruns.

Critics contend FAA has not tested STARS thoroughly enough and forced its implementation despite reservations by the airport technicians who certify systems.

Transportation IG Kenneth Mead, in a letter to FAA administrator Jane Garvey, identified 221 reports of critical problems with the system.

FAA has distinguished between 'truly critical' problems, which will be fixed before the next STARS implementation in Philadelphia in November, and 'critical' problems, which will be fixed at the agency's leisure, Mead said.

In a written response to the IG, Garvey said agency officials 'fundamentally disagree with your conclusions.'

FAA will fix all STARS problems before the Philadelphia rollout, she said. 'The FAA has not and will not deploy a system that is unsafe,' Garvey said.

But Mead questioned FAA's testing to date. 'We have serious reservations about declaring STARS operational before FAA satisfactorily completes its standard independent operational test and evaluation,' the IG said.

STARS has undergone unprecedented levels of testing, Garvey countered.

Military testing

Officials from contractor Raytheon Co. seconded Garvey. 'Every major software release has undergone factory testing and operational test and evaluation at the FAA Technical Center,' Raytheon spokeswoman Blanche Necessary said. 'In addition, a large portion of the STARS software has successfully completed military test and evaluation.'

But the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, a union that represents more than 11,000 FAA and Defense Department employees who install, maintain and certify air traffic control and national defense equipment, said FAA pushed through the certification of STARS in Syracuse over the objections of PASS technicians.

'Three experienced technicians agreed that the equipment was not operating properly, and FAA responded by threatening their jobs,' PASS president Michael D. Fanfalone said. 'Our members complied with FAA's order under protest, which they noted in the equipment logbook.'

Lost data?

FAA spokesman William Shumann said certifying equipment while there are still problems is not uncommon. 'We do this and then negotiate with the unions,' he said.

Tom Brantley, national vice president of PASS, said controllers at El Paso have complained that the system loses radar data.

But John Shey, a representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said controllers have complained only about their unfamiliarity with the equipment.

The STARS program has been under nearly constant turmoil.

FAA in 1996 awarded Raytheon the contract to replace terminal radar and other equipment at 172 FAA and 199 Defense Department facilities. The agency originally tagged costs at $940 million, but the price tag has spiraled to $1.7 billion.

The system was supposed to be in place at all civilian facilities by February 2005 and military air traffic centers by July 2007. But FAA now hopes to use the system at all civilian facilities by 2008.

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