Coming Soon To Airspace Near You

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The FAA and its air traffic controllers' union may not always see eye to eye, but they came together on a couple of points this week: the new STARS system in Philadelphia is working great and claims to the contrary by a watchdog group are misstated. The controversial Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) went live in Philly Nov. 17 after months of speculation by some that it was not up to the task. Instead, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), controllers love using STARS and have little but nice things to say about it. "We give it a thumbs up," said NATCA spokesman Doug Church. "Everyone's been impressed with it." And FAA spokesman Greg Martin has chimed in that with the lessons learned in Philadelphia -- which represents the first full-scale installation of the system -- the agency and its unions will move forward confidently at the 73 facilities currently slated to by 2005 get the system. All the firsthand feedback might lead some to wonder why the Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) bestowed its "Porker of the Month" distinction on FAA head Marion Blakey because of her perceived support of the apparently efficient if over-budget STARS system ...

...Watchdog Group Pans It...

In its Dec. 6 news release announcing the ... award ... the CAGW goes through the now-familiar litany of false starts and cost overruns that have kept STARS in the public eye for years. And that under the current deployment revision the system racks up a "41-percent increase in costs, despite installations taking place in 57 percent fewer airports," when compared to the original 172-facility installation plan. Indeed, although the Philadelphia installation was four years late, there were critics who said the Philly system was being installed prematurely because all the bugs hadn't yet been fixed and maintenance teams were understaffed. Sure enough, the system did have some problems within a day of going live -- but it's in the interpretation of the glitch that STARS supporters and the CAGW part company. In its news release, the CAGW claims STARS had to be "shut down" for 18 hours and that there were "numerous delays" caused by the glitch. CAGW spokesman Mark Carpenter said the group used a National Operations Control Center (NOCC) report and anecdotal reports from whistleblowers to formulate their insight. "From our understanding, it was an outage," said Carpenter.

...FAA Defends It

But the FAA's Martin said the glitch caused a minor inconvenience for controllers and hasn't been an issue since. Early on Nov. 18, the system started generating "ambiguous handoffs" when aircraft passed from the Philadelphia control area, first to Harrisburg and, later, to La Guardia controllers. During the transition to those zones, the identification tag dropped off the aircraft icons on the screen. That required controllers receiving the aircraft to telephone the Philadelphia controllers to confirm the identity of each aircraft. Martin said the controllers coped with the glitch until new software fixed the problem late that night. He declined to comment specifically on the CAGW release but didn't hide his opinion of the group's efforts. "I'm not going to spend taxpayers' money to respond to a group that doesn't let facts stand in the way of writing press releases for their own self-amusement," he said. That said, it didn't seem productive to ask his thoughts on Blakey's award ...