Mica: STARS to Stay Under Congressional Scrutiny

An influential House lawmaker has asked for an independent review of the troubled STARS air traffic control project, despite assurances from the Federal Aviation Administration and Raytheon Co. that the system is back on track.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation, said he wants independent experts to help him evaluate the validity of information provided by the FAA and Raytheon at a March 14 hearing on the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, known as STARS.

"It's like getting your hands around a greased pig," Mica told Washington Technology regarding the claims of progress on STARS. "You think you've got your hands on it, but it slips away. I would have liked to pin them down a bit better."

Mica did not identify the experts who will be conducting the review, but said it will be finished in time for a follow-up hearing on STARS he has scheduled for the first week of June.

Although FAA officials said they want to remain with STARS, Mica's continuing skepticism bolsters the prospects for Raytheon competitor Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md.

Lockheed Martin is proposing that the FAA drop STARS and replace it with Lockheed's Common ARTS air traffic control system. Common ARTS has been deployed in more than 130 airports as an interim solution while STARS is under development.

STARS will automate air traffic control functions that guide aircraft as they approach airports. The contract for STARS, valued at about $950 million, was awarded to Raytheon of Lexington, Mass., in 1996.

Ken Mead, inspector general for the Transportation Department, said at the hearing that the cost of the program has already increased to $1.4 billion, and he "wouldn't be surprised if it [comes out] in the neighborhood of $1.75 billion to $2 billion."

Mead also said STARS, which originally was slated to be installed in civilian air traffic control centers by 2005, has slipped by almost four years to late 2008. Installation at military air traffic control centers was to be completed by 2007 but has slipped to 2011.

Jack Ryan, acting senior vice president for aviation safety and operations at the Air Transport Association of America, reviewed the history of STARS: that it was a replacement program for the Advanced Automation System project, a sweeping revamp of the air traffic control system the FAA attempted in the 1980s. That contract had been awarded to Hughes Electronics Corp. and IBM Federal Systems.

Through a series of acquisitions, IBM Federal Systems eventually became part of Lockheed Martin Air Traffic Management. AAS was finally restructured in 1994 with some parts closed out after hundreds of millions of dollars were spent without results.

Just before the March hearing, Lockheed Martin announced it intended to submit an "unsolicited proposal" to replace STARS with its Common ARTS system. Don Antonucci, president of Lockheed's Air Traffic Management unit, testified at the hearing that Common ARTS could meet the FAA's long-term needs.

"Lockheed Martin believes that we, as a trusted and successful technology provider to the FAA, have a heavy responsibility to provide the FAA with an alternative path that we are confident is the low-risk approach, most time efficient and lowest cost to modernization," Antonucci said. "If our proposal is accepted, the savings would allow the FAA to move forward by advancing the schedule for additional modernization."

Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., ranking minority member on the Transportation Committee and former chairman of the aviation subcommittee, blasted the Lockheed Martin proposal, asserting that the company didn't "have perfectly clean hands [for] finger-pointing, either," after the AAS debacle.

Oberstar was chairman of the aviation subcommittee when the AAS house of cards collapsed, said Jim Berard, the Democratic communications director for the Transportation Committee. After a series of hearings determined that the AAS project was too ambitious, the FAA decided to develop STARS using off-the-shelf software.

"One of the things that led to Oberstar's response [was] he really had a nest of snakes to deal with after AAS," Berard said.

Steven Zaidman, the associate administrator for research and acquisitions at the FAA, testified in support of continuing with Raytheon on the implementation of STARS.

"In my opinion, [either] of the two systems will get the job done," he said, but "it's like spending several years in a rowboat. We don't want to change boats now."

STARS received qualified support from representatives of several professional associations, including the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, along with Ryan on behalf of the Air Transport Association. Michael Fanfalone, president of PASS, suggested the FAA have a backup plan in place should STARS not make its target dates.

Some industry observers believe Lockheed Martin's attempt to poach Raytheon's contract arises more as a reaction to Raytheon's protest in February of the FAA's decision to award Lockheed a sole-source contract without a competition for the agency's En Route Automation Modernization program, a 10-year contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Julie Vass denied the connection. "After we finished our program of Common ARTS ... since it was in use in many places, our executives thought we should look to see if it was possible," Vass said.

Raytheon, on the other hand, claims bewilderment at Lockheed Martin's sudden intervention into the STARS program.

"Given that we've been on schedule and actually under budget the past couple of years, we were really surprised," said Bob Eckel, vice president of Raytheon's domestic air traffic control business unit. "I just don't understand the motivation, especially given that the STARS program addresses both FAA and [Defense Department] needs."

Lockheed Martin's proposal for Common ARTS ignores the 102 air traffic control centers operated by the military, Eckel said. The STARS program is intended to produce a terminal traffic control system suited for both civilian and military needs, while Common ARTS only operates in civilian terminals.

Equally important, Raytheon is not solely responsible for the cost overruns on the STARS contract, Eckel said. Much of the overruns is because of facility improvements to be undertaken by the FAA, not because of charges incurred by Raytheon in its software development. The facilities work is included in the cost of the STARS program, but it's not performed by Raytheon, he said.

"That's their part of modernization, the buildings ... and they need to do that regardless of STARS," Eckel said.

An FAA spokeswoman confirmed that facilities upgrades have contributed to the program's cost overruns. "It depends on what happens when they get to the facility, it depends on the specific needs there," she said.

The FAA has come under considerable criticism from Congress in recent weeks. At a March 15 hearing before the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee, chairman Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., roasted FAA and trade association representatives over continued problems with flight delays.

Mica said his subcommittee will be equally tough on the STARS project.

"I think there are a bunch of areas where we can look to improve," Mica said, emphasizing that the FAA and Raytheon must meet their first alleged deadline in September or October for all their lines of software.

"If they don't meet that, the Hal Rogers hearing will look pleasant by comparison," he said.

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