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"FAA Privatization in the STARS"

Thursday, September 26, 2002

Guest Comment
FAA Privatization in the STARS
Fixing another airport mess.
By Tom Schatz
The National Review

Before the end of the month, the Senate is expected to confirm Marion
Blakey as the new administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration
(FAA). Ms. Blakey will have her work cut out for her in order to
effectively overcome the challenges of air-travel modernization. As
Blakey's predecessor Jane Garvey pointed out, it is necessary "to face
them together: government and industry, pilots and air-traffic
controllers, labor and management, the FAA and Congress." One of the
most controversial issues that Blakey must immediately address is
installation of the new air-traffic-control system, the Standard
Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS); a program characterized
by more than $1 billion in cost overruns and years of delays, that has
become a classic example for critics to cite when calling for the
privatization of the FAA.

The goal of STARS was to replace the air-traffic-control systems in all
172 FAA airports and 199 Department of Defense sites. STARS was supposed
to provide better graphics, faster processing, track more planes, and
contain backup capabilities in case of failure.

Unfortunately, STARS has run amok, and has become of benefit solely to
its private contractor, who stands to make millions more than originally
intended. The program is currently running nearly four years behind
schedule and more than $600 million over budget. STARS was scheduled to
start in 1998, and conclude in 2005, at a cost of $940.2 million.
Current estimates have the project finishing in 2008, at a cost of $1.6
billion. In the meantime, while waiting for STARS, the government has
spent an additional $85 million on an interim air-traffic-control system
called Common ARTS at 140 airports, which many experts claim is more
capable than STARS.

In addition to costs, STARS is rife with technical difficulties. Since
the FAA installed a limited version in El Paso, Texas on April 30,
technicians have reported numerous failures, such as not detecting
aircraft. According to the Department of Transportation Inspector
General, El Paso controllers are still using ARTS as a backup system
because they are not comfortable with STARS. Then in June, the FAA
forced the installation of STARS at Syracuse Hancock International
Airport when technicians refused to certify it. 

Despite these problems, the FAA still plans to have a full version of
STARS functioning in Philadelphia by November. In order to meet this
deadline, the FAA has decided to ignore the custom-design requirements
at Philadelphia. With an air-traffic control system that has had
problems detecting aircraft in place, the 24 million passengers who
travel through Philadelphia annually should be gravely concerned.

Not only are taxpayer dollars being wasted by some FAA bureaucrats'
single-minded devotion to STARS, but more importantly, the lives of the
flying public are being put at risk. STARS proponents are handing
critics of the agency a powerful tool by which to drive home their
privatization message. Marion Blakey has the obligation to work with
Congress to make sure STARS or an alternative solution provide the most
modernized and safe method of controlling air traffic. If she fails,
this will be another egregious example of bureaucratic failure by a
government agency.

Air-traffic controllers are on the frontlines and deserve the best
equipment to perform their jobs safely and effectively. While it is
certain the air-traffic controllers' union, which currently supports
STARS, would never deliberately put passenger lives at risk by
implementing the system, it's obvious completion will be further delayed
and costs will continue to rise. In the end, STARS may be installed, but
when the final numbers are tallied, the price for supporting this poorly
designed program may be the privatization of an agency.

- Tom Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

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