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Wednesday, January 1, 2003

FAA’s STARS: Ready to Shine Bright?

This system to modernize the U.S. TRACONs has suffered a troubled past. Its installation in Philadelphia is meant to prove, however, that all troubles are in the past.

Brian Evans

Exactly on time, and in a low key, anticlimactic launch, the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) made its initial operating capability (IOC) debut into the National Airspace System (NAS) early in the morning of Sunday, Nov. 17, 2002. For the next three or four months, the system will be put through its paces by about 100 controllers at the new Philadelphia terminal radar approach control (TRACON) center, where it will run in parallel with the currently operating system, "legacy" equipment using the earlier ARTS-3A technology. If, as expected, all goes well, STARS will be commissioned into full operational capability status in February or March, and the system it replaces will revert initially to a backup mode. Subsequently, as controller experience builds up with STARS, the old system will be shut down and removed.

But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and STARS manufacturer Raytheon won’t be able to rest on their laurels for too long. With Philadelphia up and running, controllers at TRACONs in Portland, Ore., Boston, Miami, Milwaukee, Tucson and Kansas City–to name just the next six in line–will now be pressing to get their hands on their STARS workstations.

Caution Urged

STARS’ fortunes are beginning to look up, but the program remains under close scrutiny. STARS implementation has been greatly delayed, and two separate U.S. government "watchdog" organizations have drawn attention to its troubled recent history and urged caution in what they perceive as FAA’s incautious haste to implement the system. Both the Inspector General (IG) of FAA’s parent, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT), and the General Accounting Office (GAO) expressed separate concerns during 2002 that, although the project had experienced serious delays, FAA might still be moving ahead too quickly with its first operational installation.

STARS will provide controllers at the nation’s TRACON facilities with new color digital display units. These will replace the vintage, and increasingly unreliable, circular monochrome screens whose rotating scans sweep past targets to illuminate them, but whose returns then slowly fade away until refreshed by the next sweep. The STARS screens provide continuous, constantly illuminated depictions of the traffic situation and can accommodate future air traffic control (ATC) developments such as automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) and controller-pilot data link communications (CPDLC).

Launched under a contract with Raytheon in 1996, STARS will be a key component of FAA’s ATC modernization program. The agency announced in late 2001 that it would install the first full-configuration STARS at the new Philadelphia TRACON, in parallel with the opening of the airport’s new terminal building. While two "early display configurations" of STARS had been installed in February 2000 at the El Paso, Texas, and Syracuse, N.Y., TRACONS for controller evaluation of the displays and some limited data processing features (August 2000, page 20), the full-configuration system at Philadelphia would incorporate almost all of the final STARS capabilities, which had been developed over the intervening two and a half years.

But the STARS development program has had a difficult gestation period. While originally intended to be built primarily around commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology, based on previous systems produced by Raytheon for overseas customers, the current program, according to a GAO report to Congress in September, "...is not the program that FAA contracted for in 1996." Both the GAO report and a June memorandum from the IG to former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey pointed out that the forecasted initial delivery of complete systems had slipped from 1998 to 2002 and costs had risen remarkably.

Price Went Up

The GAO reported that the $980-million, fixed-price contract placed in 1996 had now become a $1.33-billion project and, for that price, FAA would install units at just 74 locations instead of the 188 originally contracted for. (FAA points out that the $1.33 billion includes almost all of the research and development.) The 74 locations are to receive their equipment between 2002 and 2005. While not specifically identified by FAA, these locations are understood to be TRACONs that still operate the very earliest, and extremely trouble-prone, circular radar displays requiring frequent in-service replacement. (TRACONs are being consolidated, however, and STARS is planned only for the continental U.S. There now are 179 TRACONS, and 167 are slated to get STARS.)

Separately, an FAA official stated that the balance of the systems would be installed between 2005 and 2008 under a follow-on contract to Raytheon, for a price still to be determined. These latter systems are understood to be destined for TRACONs in which the earlier circular screens have been replaced with interim, color digital display units, which are not part of STARS. The IG’s June memorandum to Administrator Garvey estimated that the final cost to equip all FAA TRACONs with STARS would be "at least $1.7 billion," and the agency did not refute this claim.

Culture Clash

What happened between the contract award in 1996 and the first full-configuration system delivery in 2002? You could call it a clash between new technology and the combination of user practices, official inflexibility and unachievable implementation targets.

Shortly after the initial contract award in 1996, FAA declared that the prestigious Boston TRACON would become the STARS "flagship" location and would, in September 1998, receive the first systems off the production line. But this demanded an extremely tight schedule and, when emerging problems (reportedly due to FAA’s insistence on design changes to its COTS approach) started to threaten the Boston delivery date, FAA program officials–some of them former controllers–decided to save time by sidestepping parts of the procurement process.

One of those parts was the human factors review, where working controllers would assess the system’s acceptability to users. The U.S. National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) immediately protested, citing a number of "unacceptable" system problems that they had come to hear about, but all of which program officials had dismissed as not being critical to safe operation. The problems cited by NATCA included the system’s frequent use of computer-style drop down windows which, being opaque, covered up part of the radar screen, thereby obliterating many aircraft movements. Another problem arose over the system’s computer keyboard, which used a present-day QWERTY sequence of letters along its top line, instead of the ABCDEF order of traditional controller keyboards. NATCA claimed that controllers accustomed to the ABCDEF keyboard could, in high traffic-density situations, inadvertently strike incorrect keys while using the QWERTY layout, with attendant safety implications.

The impasse lasted for several weeks, and FAA only capitulated after U.S. congressmen heard a NATCA representative testify that the planned STARS installation at Washington National airport (now Washington Reagan International), which many of them used frequently, would pose a safety threat. Very quickly, NATCA was invited to join the STARS program team, Boston and Washington were shelved and the El Paso and Syracuse TRACONs were selected as lower-visibility flag carriers.

Over the next few years, NATCA representatives on the project team identified 98 separate human factors concerns, which eventually would add around $400 million in redesign work. They caused Raytheon’s fixed-price contract to become a "cost-plus" arrangement, where all specification changes, such as dropping the QUERTY keyboard, were simply added to the bill. (Curiously, NATCA human factors representatives on an earlier FAA program team had not objected to QWERTY keyboards for similar new radar displays at air route traffic control centers [ARTCCs], where they are now in everyday use by controllers.) But the inevitable result was that the system, which started out as a major COTS initiative, became, according to GAO, one which "bears little resemblance to the program envisioned in 1996."

Another Group’s Issues

But while NATCA’s concerns about controller issues with STARS were being resolved and controllers, according to Raytheon, were said to be satisfied with the system, the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS), whose members install and maintain FAA equipment, was raising alarms. PASS was concerned about the growing number of program trouble reports (PTRs) being filed by its technicians servicing the El Paso and Syracuse systems, and seven other TRACONS which had subsequently received "early display configuration" systems. PTRs are graded from 1 to 4 in criticality, with PTRs-1 and -2 describing mission-essential faults requiring repair before further operation, and PTRs-3 and -4 describing non-safety related faults.

In its June memorandum, the IG had expressed concern to Administrator Garvey about the number of PTRs and other program shortcomings, noting that in March 2002, there were 72 PTR-1s, 159 PTR-2s and 37 PTR-3s and -4s outstanding. Both the IG and the GAO also were disturbed by FAA’s intention to cancel its original plan to conduct pre-operational tests and resolve any late problems by first operating the full-configuration system in the lower traffic-density airspace around Memphis, prior to the Philadelphia installations.

Garvey responded to the IG, stating that FAA would never field a system that was unsafe. Meanwhile, FAA told the GAO that the Nov. 17, 2002, IOC date for Philadelphia could not be changed, since achieving it was "important to the agency’s credibility." The agency also stated that "going directly to Philadelphia will serve as a more demanding and instructive test site." In addition, the agency pointed out that while the Philadelphia TRACON would be using STARS to control traffic from the outset, the TRACON’s previously existing equipment would continue to operate in a backup mode until early 2003, when it was expected that STARS would be officially commissioned. However, FAA did advise GAO that it was "less certain that it will be able to complete the certification training required for maintenance technicians."

As of mid-November 2002, there were more technicians at Philadelphia certified on STARS than on the predecessor system, according to an FAA spokesman.


When the U.S. General Accounting Office released its report in September 2002, titled "Status of FAA’s Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System," it drew a quick retort from the contracted system provider, Raytheon. Claiming the GAO report has "major flaws," the company said in a written release that the "Full Service STARS software...has been subject to extensive testing over the past two years by both FAA and Raytheon. Based on the successful results of all these tests, the STARS Full Service-2 [FS-2] system was declared operationally suitable by the FAA test team earlier this month [September]."

Raytheon pointed out in the release that it has been "developing and delivering air traffic control systems for more than 50 years [including to] air traffic services in Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Canada, China and the United States. Raytheon is not in the business of delivering unsafe systems," the release asserted.

Apparently hot under the collar in September, Raytheon officials appeared fairly cool and confident in November, at the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) show in Washington, D.C. Boasts one official, "Wait until you see Philadelphia."

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