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FAA Tests STARS Fix on Live Traffic in Detroit while Testing Lab Sits Idle - (4/8/2004)

CONTACT: Tom Kuhn, 734-223-2692

DETROIT – The Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System is designed to revert to a backup system when problems arise, such as incorrect identification of planes, which is now plaguing STARS in the Detroit Terminal Radar Approach Control room. But in a case of bad policy, not bad technology, the Federal Aviation Administration is testing possible fixes not in a simulator but with live traffic on the STARS system itself, which remains plugged in while Detroit’s backup system sits ready and free, but unused.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association today called the FAA’s stance an inexplicable and unnecessarily risky decision that is putting controllers and the flying public in jeopardy, likening it to performing critical maintenance on a car with the hood up while traveling at 60 miles per hour.

“This is an unacceptable way of doing business,” NATCA Director of Safety and Technology Doug Fralick said. “Why did the FAA spend millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a system that has the capability to fall back to ARTS in the event things don’t go as planned and then steadfastly refuse to use it? The FAA is experimenting in Detroit with untested adaptations, putting the system on Emergency Service Level to install the adaptations, then waiting to see what happens with live traffic. It’s unbelievable. Detroit has a fully functional Electronic Target Generator lab, which would allow the FAA to see if its proposed fixes will work. Why not use it?”

Much of the problems with STARS in Detroit involve the incorrect tracking of aircraft. Aircraft departing off the end of the runway are often not receiving a correct data tag indicating its flight information, such as speed, altitude and heading. Some departures are not showing up at all on controllers’ radar scopes, while other departures are receiving data tags that belong to aircraft on arrival to the airport. In addition, at times, the data tag flies off in a direction not associated with the actual radar location of the flight, and there have even been reports of STARS not tracking some aircraft at all until several miles from the airport.

“The major issue is that the primary aircraft target (on the radar scopes) is not tracking properly,” stated Tom Kuhn, president of the Detroit TRACON local NATCA chapter. “Sometimes, the target is very tiny and hard to see. If it’s not caught right away and the tower sends another departure on the parallel runway side-by-side, then you’ve got a potential problem if the planes turn. The result could be a loss of separation.”

Kuhn said efforts to fix the glitches are ongoing but leading to other problems. This is highly risky because the system is still being used to control live traffic. “The system needs to be turned off while they correct the problems,” he remarked. “Then they can evaluate the fixes on their simulation equipment. To be testing these fixes with live traffic raises safety concerns for me.”

Fralick insisted NATCA’s confidence level in STARS remains very high. “We’re not asking the FAA to scrap STARS, simply fix it. What will it take to revert to the backup system? A near-miss? Or worse? It appears the FAA is more interested in saving face on STARS than doing what is safe and prudent.”

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