These STARS Don't Shine

Will no one stand up for air travelers? Will no one stand down government waste?

Despite the incessant talk about protecting our air travel and our tax dollars, neither President Bush nor Congress musters enough backbone to end a dangerous and wasteful air safety program that’s been gobbling up dollars for too long.

Believe it or not, it’s been nearly a year since I flagged the FAA’s dismal record on a program with a dreadful bureaucratic name of Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System. The acronym, STARS, is an even more dreadful misnomer.

For over the past year, evidence has mounted STARS is no star. Despite outcries on this page by the Department of Transportation’s own inspector general, and just recently by the GAO of its rising costs, falling delivery and dicey performance, STARS just rolls along.

The administration and Congress keep funding this loser. If this were a marginal program -- federal research on sea lions and the like, which senators fund as hometown pork -- OK.

But this program has a serious mission. It is the FAA’s newest attempt to renew the nation’s air traffic control system. Software glitches cannot be tolerated when the software in STARS enables air traffic controllers to guide planes full of innocent passengers on a safe pathway.

The General Accounting Office last month released a report justifying my wailings on STARS. To review the bidding:

• FAA signed the contract on STARS in 1996 for $940 million to install new air control systems in 172 U.S. facilities by 2005.

• Now, the cost won’t be $940 million -- but $1.3 billion, which amounts to a 38 percent overrun.

• And, no, that whopping amount won’t cover 172 airports and other facilities, but a mere 74.

• So the FAA’s cost to upgrade each facility won’t be $5 and $500,000, but more like $17 and a half! Hence a cost overrun of more than 300 percent -- threefold -- on dollars per facility.

And that -- believe it or not, taxpayers of America -- is the best-case scenario!

Last month, the GAO reported the FAA’s "life-cycle" estimate of STARS' costs "is inherently uncertain." Estimates of costs beyond initial deployment -- to operate, maintain and upgrade STARS -- "will amount to about $2.54 billion for 74 systems for fiscal years 2004 through 2030." These estimators are the same folks who promised us STARS for $940 million in 172 facilities.

The GAO sadly reports, "Since 1996, when FAA initiated STARS, it has spent approximately $1.2 billion, or about 86 percent of the funding budgeted for the program, and it has twice approved major changes to the program’s cost and schedule estimates."

As costs rise, as timelines slip, as software glitches arise, the FAA just funds the beast. And the Office of Management and Budget, which should be a watchdog of taxpayer funds, sits back and watches this happen.

Congress goes along, too. When the GAO presented testimony to the House Subcommittee on Aviation a few weeks ago, it admitted: "Originally, FAA planned to complete its modernization in 10 years at a cost of $12 billion. Now, two decades later, FAA estimates it will need nearly $16 billion more through fiscal year 2007 to complete key projects, including STARS."

No wonder that the FAA administrator, Marion Blakey, received the Committee Against Government Waste’s "Porker of the Month" in December for the STARS fiasco.

This outrage is resented by the dedicated professionals in the FAA, who have written me scores of e-mails on STARS horrors over the past year. So detailed were their reports, so passionate were their outcries, that the FAA cracked down. After STARS was deployed in Philadelphia, the FAA clamped down on information flowing out on its embarrassment.

STARS is the program the FAA wants to hide from the administration, Congress and the American public. Doesn’t that tell you something?

After a year, I’m still waiting for someone in office -- in the administration, Congress, FAA, Department of Transportation, anywhere -- to come forward and assure what’s best for America’s air traffic control system, and American taxpayers.

After a year, enough is enough already.

Kenneth Adelman is a frequent guest commentator on Fox News, was assistant to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from 1975 to 1977 and, under President Ronald Reagan, U.N. ambassador and arms-control director. Mr. Adelman is now co-host of