Air Traffic (Out of) Control

Three months ago, I wrote how the FAA’s program to modernize air traffic control -- acronymed STARS -- was no star. I reported that STARS has gone from a worry to a serious concern to something approaching an outrage.

Now I can report that it’s gotten even worse.

The new FAA administrator, Marion Blakey, must do what’s admirable, though nearly unprecedented in Washington, and admit the agency she now controls made a big mistake, albeit a mistake not of her making.

Few federal agencies make mistakes that could jeopardize the safety of both the traveling public and our men and women in uniform. But that’s what’s happening here.

Before Ms. Blakey took office, the FAA invoked what’s called an Operational Necessity clause to override the Professional Airways Systems Specialists -- the men and women who install, support and certify both air traffic control for the general public and for our national defense. As I reported then, PASS had refused to give the STARS system their stamp of approval.

Since then there have been a slew of congressional hearings, scathing General Accounting Office reports and repeated frets by the Department of Transportation’s respected inspector general.

Despite all this strutting and fretting about STARS -- whose real name is Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System -- no remedial action has been taken.

In 1996, FAA contracted for STARS to bring the us the latest, greatest air radar and aircraft tracking technology. Since 1996 there have been a series of setbacks:

-- Full deployment was initially scheduled for 2005, but will now be 2008 at the earliest;

--STARS was budgeted, and sold to Congress, at $940 million for 188 facilities, but will now be more than $1.33 billion for deployment in only 74 sites;

--That means the cost has gone from close to $5 million per facility to at least a whopping $17.5 million per facility.

A report last month from the GAO citing the STARS program’s woes warned that these problems, if not corrected, might prevent the FAA from using STARS to control air traffic and might jeopardize safety. This followed a June letter by the inspector general raising similar safety concerns.

Rather than admit a mistake, then-FAA administrator Jane Garvey stubbornly told the FAA to deploy STARS in Philadelphia next month, regardless.

Not a comforting thought. Consider El Paso, Texas, one location where STARS has been deployed. At that site, STARS tracks "planes" which are really trucks driving down the highway near the airport. And that’s just one of 40 tracking problems that have been identified with this "state of the art" technology.

Since singling out STARS for particular concerns, I’ve received over 30 emails from those in the know -- either within the FAA or as part of its professional community -- that suggest a problem even worse than I portray it. These confidential emails come from dedicated air controllers and safety professionals around the country. I’m grateful to each dedicated public servant.

While bemoaning STARS, they’ve informed me of alternatives. It’s not that the FAA is stuck with STARS, or nothing.

In fact, both the GAO report and the DOT's inspector general mention something called "the Common ARTS system." It’s apparently already operating at over 140 air traffic control centers, has a solid track record, and can modernize the FAA’s network faster and cheaper than STARS.

The FAA has already made a significant investment to deploy Common ARTS, which works fine.

The new FAA administrator, and the Congress should investigate fully and -- if this information is correct -- cut off STARS before dangers mount higher and costs mount further. American taxpayers, the flying public and the men and women who serve our country and patrol our skies deserve much better.

Stay tuned to see if our campaign for air safety and good government, backed by confidential information from those inside the FAA community, is any more successful over the next three months. Hope so, since it’s a cause taxpayers should, indeed must, win.

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

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