STARS begins slow ascent at FAA

STARS can overlay six levels of weather displays over air traffic data, giving controllers detailed information to direct aircraft flight paths.

The Federal Aviation Administration appears to have finally gotten the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System on track, but budget constraints may hold back deployment.

Air traffic controllers want Congress and the Bush administration to support more funding for the system to speed STARS' rollout. The union that represents FAA's information systems workers said resolving management issues between the agency and chief contractor Raytheon Co. likely would make installations more efficient and timely.

Slower deployment is a result of tighter federal budgets and cost overruns to develop the system, said Michael Fanfalone, national president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists union.

'Once STARS gets to more facilities, it can prove itself,' he said. 'Then everybody will give it the political juice it needs to get the money for more deployment.'

FAA's estimate of the total cost of STARS rose from $940 million in 1996 to $2.54 billion, which the agency now says it needs to fund the program through 2030, according to a January 2003 General Accounting Office report. The current figure includes $153 million for implementation at 74 airports through 2008.

FAA will get recommendations on how to speed the rollout when Mitre Corp. of McLean, Va., this fall completes an evaluation of STARS' costs and deployment.

'Costs are more definable now that STARS is an operational system and not research and development,' FAA spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler said.

STARS, which for years was plagued with problems and delays, has been operating at the El Paso, Texas, Philadelphia and Syracuse, N.Y., airports. FAA commissioned the STARS Full Service-2 system last week at Philadelphia International Airport in a public event to signal the system's readiness for nationwide deployment. The only question is timing.

STARS is an open-architecture air traffic automation system meant to bring controllers out of the dark, literally, and into the future with high-resolution color displays.

New computer processing and communications equipment gives controllers more precise capabilities to maneuver airline traffic. STARS can overlay six levels of weather displays over air traffic data, giving controllers detailed information to direct aircraft flight paths. The system incorporates data from up to 16 radar systems.

FAA had planned to deploy STARS at 18 airports this year, but the agency slashed the number to seven because of budget cuts.

Coming soon

The Portland, Ore., airport began using STARS May 21; Miami will deploy the system in July. Through the rest of the year, STARS will be installed at airports in Boston; Milwaukee; Port Columbus, Ohio; San Antonio; and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.

'The STARS deployment waterfall has turned into a trickle,' said John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. 'This is demoralizing to a lot of the controller work force. STARS works, and there is no reason why every terminal facility in the country shouldn't have it.'

'Reaching the field in time is all about budgetary pressures,' said Doug Church, spokesman for the air traffic controllers union, calling for lawmakers to address the problem. 'The bugs have been worked out of the system. Philadelphia is a success story.'

STARS' technical issues have been corrected. Last year, PASS protested STARS deployment because testing and training were insufficient. Both have improved, Fanfalone said.

'Overall, STARS works,' said Mike Perrone, PASS national liaison for the STARS program. 'We wouldn't certify it unless it was doing all of its functions.'

STARS was conceived so that once it passed performance tests at one airport, it could be deployed at any airport with few or no problems.

'There's only so far you can test this in a lab environment,' Fanfalone said. 'It's not until you run it through its paces that you know what operational issues will crop up.'

Glitches still occur, Perrone said. For example, in Philadelphia recently, a problem in the radar system did not show up in the STARS maintenance control work system. PASS is awaiting the results of an investigation of the problem.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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