The Federal Aviation Administration has begun deploying a new computer system for its air traffic controllers despite warnings that the software suffers from unstable requirements, lacks key safety capabilities and requires training that has yet to be given to workers, a government watchdog warned Monday.
The problems with the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) are so widespread right now that the new system already being installed at the Dallas airport actually has fewer capabilities for air traffic controllers than the old software it was designed to replace, the Transportation Department’s inspector general reported.
One of the missing capabilities is a special warning that alerts controllers of loss of separation between aircraft, a potential safety hazard, the IG said. Officials are scrambling for an upgrade this month to fix that problem.
“The STARS deployment incorporates fewer capabilities than [the system] it aims to replace,” the inspector general wrote in a stark memo made public Monday.
A respected outside flight safety expert said the long-flawed rollout of the STARS system is a classic tale of bureaucracy gone awry.
“It’s the age-old problem with the FAA,” said Mary Schiavo, herself a former Department of Transportation inspector general. “They rely pretty much entirely on the contractors. They keep changing the parameters, and they have to keep changing them, because it’s gone on so long that new things keep getting developed.”
The warnings Monday are the latest for the troublesome STARS system. The IG recently raised red flags about STARS’ implementation back in a May 2013 report, warning the new system was in danger of falling “short of providing promised capabilities for controlling takeoffs and landings — the most critical phases of flight.”
However, the STARS system has faced problems since the contract was signed in 1996, when Ms. Schiavo was the department’s top watchdog.
“We issued warnings then,” she said. “It has taken so long to implement that the computer code they [initially wrote] has [had] to be updated so many times that they never got the bugs out.”
The FAA proceeded with installing the system in Dallas, and the inspector general subsequently went to that airport to observe the installation. “As a result of this examination, we determined that the risks we identified in our earlier report remain,” the IG reported. “Notably, FAA has yet to stabilize STARS software requirements.”
Both the current and former IGs raised concerns that the problems with STARS could undermine the FAA’s efforts to launch its next generation of air traffic control technology.
“They put it in place in Dallas without working out all the software bugs and hoped to kind of work it out as they went along,” Ms. Schiavo explained, adding that eventually the integration of STARS with NextGen could cause even more problems.
Cost is just one of the concerns. The IG says STARS has already cost nearly $338 million out of the $438 million approved funding for its implementation, and that if FAA deploys the new system at 11 of the nation’s largest airports, the project will exceed its baseline approved funding by $19 million.
According to Ms. Schiavo, the project is now dozens of times over budget.
“They simply cannot manage it. This is one of the largest software build-outs ever in the history of the country,” she said.
FAA officials acknowledged that identifying and monitoring the new system’s requirements has been problematic, according to the report. FAA officials did not immediately respond Monday to calls for comment.
The IG investigators also contend that the training for the new system has raised concerns, especially the lack of customized training specific to each airport’s needs.
“Questions about the adequacy of FAA’s training and certification of technical operations specialists raise additional concerns about the agency’s management of STARS deployment,” the report said.
The FAA said in its response that it believes the training provided to specialists at the FAA Academy was successful based on positive feedback from a majority of training participants.
Ms. Schiavo fears that the only solution at this point is for the FAA to forge a consensus on the software standard and commit to it, even though it might not be much better than the previous system.
“What they have to do is basically stick with less than the absolute optimal and try to get this thing up and running, even though it will be largely outdated” by then, she said.