IG says FAA should replace aged displays ASAP

IG says FAA should replace aged displays ASAP

The Federal Aviation Administration needs to quickly replace aging computer displays at radar control towers in Chicago, Denver, St. Louis and Minneapolis because 'they are experiencing significant reliability problems,' according to a report the Transportation Department inspector general released today.

The four terminal radar approach control towers, or TRACONs, are in line for new air traffic systems, but not until 2008. Airport towers hand off control of air traffic to TRACONS after takeoff.

Faced with spiking costs and schedule delays, FAA has delayed making decisions about how to complete its modernization, which includes installing the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System and color displays to replace 1970s-era systems. STARS, built for FAA by Raytheon Co., is an open-architecture system that combines data from up to 16 radar systems in a single view of aircraft and weather on high-resolution color displays for air traffic controllers.

But the IG report said the four locations should not wait three years for the upgrades.

The aging displays at Denver cause controller workstations to lock up on a random basis, the IG found. 'FAA officials from that facility told us that this problem has occurred 100 times in the past three and one-half years and is now occurring a little over once a week. To fix the problem, technicians must restart the display, which takes a minimum of 90 seconds," the report said.

Denver now relies on network components that are no longer manufactured but must be replaced by cannibalizing parts from retired systems. Although the Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis terminal facilities have not experienced the same failure rates, FAA officials at these sites have become concerned about this problem and the lack of spare parts, the report said.

FAA is trying to determine how best to finish the terminal modernization effort. FAA's original cost estimate for STARS, in 1996, was $940 million and the scheduled completion date was by 2005 for 172 systems. Earlier this year, FAA revised its commitment to include just 50 sites at a cost of $1.46 billion, in large part because STARS is a cost-plus contract.

FAA cannot replace newer systems at large airports until the Transportation IG validates FAA's updated cost estimates. Because FAA has changed its approach to STARS, it has not yet updated the program's lifecycle cost estimates.

The agency is considering whether to retain the Common Automated Radar Terminal System at facilities where it was installed instead of upgrading to STARS. Common ARTS provides many of STARS' functions. But the majority of sites with Common ARTS still have aging displays because FAA planned to install the new displays along with STARS.

Upgrading 20-year-old displays with modern color displays would allow the use of advanced system capabilities, such as the color display of weather information. FAA could start replacing the obsolete displays immediately with commercially available color displays and installing other associated upgrades to improve reliability. 'Replacing aging displays represents a step that will extend the useful life of installed systems and enhance their capability and reliability,' the report said

Besides replacing aging displays at the four large sites, the Transportation IG recommended that FAA:

  • Defer further investment in STARS beyond those needed to complete the 47 approved sites until it decides whether to move forward with STARS or Common ARTS

  • Negotiate a contract that makes use of fixed-price elements for completing the 47 sites already approved for STARS deployment, including installation and adaptation costs.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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