STARS Cut Back Again

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Only Seven Deployments This Year...

The FAA has scaled back its controversial Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) again, this time chopping the number of deployments this year from 18 to seven. Air traffic control employees got the news last Friday. FAA spokesman Greg Martin confirmed Wednesday that the agency doesn't have the money to install all the copies of the long-overdue, over-budget and often-criticized system it had planned to deploy this year. It's the latest in a long line of controversies that has dogged the system since it was first announced in 1996. The modern color displays with enhanced capabilities for controllers were supposed to be installed in 188 of the U.S.'s busiest airports at a cost of $2.5 billion. It's now slated for 74 facilities and the projected cost is about the same. Problems during development, including the need to custom-build some of the components of the system, are largely blamed for the cost increases and their subsequent deployment decreases. To date, only one fully operation STARS systems is handling traffic. The Philadelphia TRACON got it in November and, despite fears by some that it would fail, it has worked well, according to the people using it.

...GAO Slams Financial Controls...

It could all be a coincidence, but the STARS cutbacks came just as the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report on the financial controls that suggests the FAA has lost control of the program. According to the report, the FAA hasn't the faintest idea what STARS will finally end up costing, and the forecasting methods are reliant on old data and figures. What's more, the GAO says the contract management violates almost all the FAA's own rules for such things and taxpayers can't trust the current financial forecasts. "... The reliability of these cost estimates is uncertain," the report reads. "If FAA's estimates are not reliable, both the agency and the Congress will be limited in their ability to project and compare the costs and benefits of completing STARS." The report also suggests that because STARS is so messed up, the FAA's acquisition of other major systems could also be suspect. The GAO has recommended the FAA tighten up management of STARS and the FAA has said it had planned to.

...Budget "Maintains" Funding Levels

All this was happening as the Department of Transportation released its budget for the coming year. Although the FAA says it doesn't have the money to install the STARS systems it planned, the budget highlights say it perhaps should have. "The president's [fiscal year] 2004 budget request maintains current levels of aviation infrastructure investment ..." the DOT release reads. The budget highlights also includes $8.7 billion for safety programs and $2.3 billion for modernizing the air traffic system to increase capacity and reduce delays. "The aim is to increase daily arrival capacity at the nation's airports to more than 49,000 arrivals per day by the end of 2004 compared to an average of 47,000 arrivals per day in 2002," it says.