- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2004

Americans’ distain for federal programs is occasionallydeserved, especially when Americans’ air safety could possibly be endangered and their tax dollars are being wasted. For years, the Federal Aviation Administration has been trying to modernize the nation’s air traffic control systems. That’s a noble effort. But for years, the FAA has relied on a lousy system to do so. That’s dangerous and wasteful.

Recently, a government inspector-general issued yet another scathing evaluation of the nation’s air traffic controllers’ program — officially known as the “Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System” — STARS for short. It found the program to be way over budget and way under performance goals. Inresponse,anFAA spokesman said that while the agency agrees with many of the critical findings, it will complete its evaluation of the program “by late spring or early summer.” Hello? It’s the holiday season now, when millions of Americans are flying around the country, presuming they’re as safe as can be. Most don’t realize they’ll be flying around guided by dedicated air traffic controllers who are saddled with an outdated system that’s wasting millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.

What gives? This isn’t exactly a trivial matter or a new finding.

It’s been more than two years since I wrote an Op-Ed for the Washington Times noting that STARS has serious technical flaws and is among the most wasteful government programs of the new century. Considering the trillions that the feds spend on government programs every year, that’s saying something.

When I first wrote about STARS in June 2002 it was alreadyyearsbehind schedule and technologically flawed — identifying trucks on a highway as planes in the air, for instance. It was also grossly over budget.

Yet the FAA was determined to stay with this lemon and try to turn it into lemonade. Good try, but no juice. Now, two and a half years later, the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) inspector-general issued a formal report confirming what we knew — that STARS is facing obsolescence even as it’s being built and deployed.

The program’s original deadline for completion has slipped by more than five years. It’s costing upwards of 80 percent more than originally budgeted. Worse yet, it remains flawed, losing track of aircraft in flight (which is, after all, the mission of such a program).

This recent report is only the latest in honest reporting being routinely ignored by the FAA and DOT: In 1997, the DOT inspector-general first anticipated that early problems associated with STARS would hike costs and lower results. In 1998, the General Accounting Office conducted an investigation which found that STARS “software development will cost over $25 million — about one-third above the original estimate. The GAO also found that software productivity rates were lower than projected…currently scheduled completion dates do not reflect delays and problems?systems cost more than expected, are of low quality and are late as well.”

In 2001, the DOT inspector-general again warned that “deploying STARS within cost and schedule remains at risk.” In September 2002 it was back to the GAO, which wrote that “the program presently bears little resemblance to the programenvisionedin 1996 ? Problems, if not corrected, might prevent the FAA from using STARS to control air traffic and might jeopardize safety.” I added to these urgent cries for responsibility in a June 16, 2002 Washington Times Op-Ed: “STARS has gone from a worry to a serious concern to now approaching an outrage?Congress should demand an explanation for the FAA’s irresponsible actions on STARS and its extraordinary defense of this program — noble in objective yet so flawed in execution.” Remarkably, very little has been done.

The only good news is that the FAA may be just starting to get it. It now admits that the latest IG report has merit. While that’s awfully slim pickings, it’s something. At least, it’s a departure from then-FAA Administrator Jane Garvey’s emphatic response to the 2002 IG report: “We fundamentally disagree with your conclusions.”

But it’s still a long way to assuring Americans’ air safety and handling their tax dollars responsibly. The solution is clear: Just say no. Stop pouring our federal funds into a program that’s been successful only in proving its critics right, time and time again. The FAA, DOT or Congress — any one of the three — must end this debacle and cancel STARS. While long overdue, it would still constitute a nice present to Americans flying to visit loved ones this Christmas.

Ken Adelman, a U.N. ambassador and arms-control director under President Reagan, now co-hosts TechCentralStation.com, an on-line think tank.

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