Problems with new air traffic system threaten safety, investigators say

WASHINGTON (AP) — A problem-plagued $1.3 billion air traffic control system still has major flaws that must be corrected before it debuts in November, congressional investigators say.

The problems remain so severe that they will jeopardize air safety if not fixed, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said in a report issued Tuesday.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Scott Brenner said the agency is correcting any flaws and won't use the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, or STARS, if it has safety-threatening problems.

"Obviously, we're not going to deploy a system that is not 100% safe," Brenner said. "This is new technology. We'll work out all the bugs before we deploy it."

But officials of the union representing the FAA employees who certify and maintain air traffic control equipment say they worry that the agency will install the system even if it doesn't work properly.

"We are very, very concerned that the FAA is so determined to deploy STARS that they'll deploy it even if they shouldn't," said Tom Brantley, vice president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists. "If the system is not certified properly, if we can't verify that the information is accurate, then that could absolutely lead to big problems. They have to know where that aircraft is. It's our job to make sure the system will tell them that."

The full STARS is scheduled to make its debut in November in Philadelphia. Limited versions are now in El Paso, Texas; Syracuse, N.Y.; Memphis, Tenn.; Hartford, Conn.; Birmingham, Ala.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Detroit; Albany, N.Y.; and Providence, R.I.

Eventually, STARS will be installed at dozens of sites where controllers track planes from takeoff to cruising altitude. It will replace several different models of computers now in use and offer full-color displays instead of monochrome. It contains weather maps and can be expanded to produce even more detail about storms.

But the GAO, the Transportation Department inspector general and the union say the equipment doesn't always present a reliable picture of area traffic.

"These problems, if not corrected, might prevent FAA from using STARS to control air traffic and might jeopardize safety," the GAO said.

Blanche Necessary, a spokeswoman for Raytheon Co., which is building the system, said the company and the FAA are testing STARS and making changes as needed. "Everything keeps getting tested and retested," she said.

STARS has been plagued by cost overruns and delays, according to both the GAO and the Transportation Department inspector general. In 1996, the FAA planned to install STARS at 172 facilities beginning in 1998 at a cost of $940 million. Plans now call for 74 facilities at a cost of $1.3 billion; the first systems went online this year, four years behind schedule.

Brenner said the agency initially planned to buy commercial hardware and software, but it wasn't reliable enough. The higher costs and delays resulted because the FAA needed to buy custom-made, more reliable equipment, he said.

Even then, the first system, in El Paso, didn't properly display the flights, Inspector General Kenneth Mead said in June. The old system remained in place as a backup because "tower managers stated controllers were not comfortable relying solely on STARS," Mead said.

That same month the FAA invoked a never-before-used clause in its contract with its employees, declaring an emergency and ordering the technicians in Syracuse, N.Y., to certify the system there, which must be done before air traffic controllers can begin using the displays.