Trouble In Detroit's STARS, NATCA Says

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The FAA's controversial Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) was the subject of a complaint from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) last week, as glitches plague the system in the Detroit Terminal Radar Approach Control room where it was installed last month. But what really got NATCA rankled was that the FAA is testing its potential fixes with live traffic in the field, instead of trying them first in a lab setting. That's "an inexplicable and unnecessarily risky decision that is putting controllers and the flying public in jeopardy," NATCA said in a news release. But FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro told The Detroit News, "We feel the controller's union claims are really wildly overstated." Molinaro added, "The issues we're going through with the system absolutely do not compromise safety. ... You can simulate things in a lab, but it's not like the real thing. You have to do that test while the system is operational." NATCA compared that practice to performing critical maintenance on a car with the hood up while traveling at 60 mph.

Most of the problems with STARS in Detroit, where it came online about a month ago, involve the incorrect tracking of aircraft, NATCA said. Aircraft departing off the end of the runway are often not receiving a correct data tag indicating their flight information, such as speed, altitude and heading. Some departures are not showing up at all on controllers' radar scopes, while other departures are receiving data tags that belong to aircraft on arrival to the airport. In addition, at times, the data tag flies off in a direction not associated with the actual radar location of the flight, and there have even been reports of STARS not tracking some aircraft at all until several miles from the airport. "Sometimes, the target is very tiny and hard to see," said Tom Kuhn, president of the Detroit Terminal Radar Approach Control local NATCA chapter. "If it's not caught right away and the tower sends another departure on the parallel runway side-by-side, then you've got a potential problem if the planes turn. The result could be a loss of separation. ... The system needs to be turned off while they correct the problems."