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The Birth of STARS

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2002-04-08 Print this article Print

Its tortuous route to modernizing air traffic control systems has cost the Federal Aviation Administration billions. Has the agency finally learned its lessons?

The Birth of STARS

George L. Donohue, a systems engineering professor at George Mason University who once ran research and acquisitions for the FAA, says much of what's wrong with the agency stems from an inability to stand up to its unions, who wind up holding veto power over what gets deployed.

His bitterness stems largely from STARS, the Raytheon system selected on his watch. STARS was originally developed for Norway, and has since been deployed elsewhere in Europe and the world. Donohue thought it could be deployed in the U.S., with a few tweaks. But the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) complained it hadn't been consulted adequately and warned the system would be unsafe if deployed in its original form.

The controllers wanted STARS to have an ABC keyboard like the one they had grown used to, rather than the QWERTY keyboard Raytheon proposed. Although not necessarily the most logical or ergonomic, QWERTY is the standard typewriter and computer keyboard, named after a key sequence on the left side. Controllers wanted STARS to mimic consoles of the existing Automated Radar Terminal System (ARTS) system. That not only meant giving STARS an ABC keyboard but also a bunch of knobs and dials resembling the analog controls on an ARTS console.

Controllers said they feared that in a crisis they might lose critical time reaching for a knob that wasn't there or hesitating over an unfamiliar keyboard. The knobs provide fast access to functions such as changing the range of radar data displayed on the screen.

Bill Blackmer, the safety and technology director for NATCA, says there is nothing so crazy about controllers demanding hardware tailored to their high-pressure job. Besides, TRACON controllers don't sit at a keyboard and type. Instead, they occasionally hit a few keys required to accomplish a specific function.

"These programs were being built by people used to building PC computers," Blackmer says. "The engineers thought we'd sit in front of the computer and go through all the windows and menus. They didn't realize that time is the enemy of the air traffic controller."

Today, the FAA's strategy is that working with its unions makes more sense than working against them. In any case, the FAA heads charged with leading the development and deployment of new systems don't have the power to change the rules of the game. Given the hand they have been dealt, they are playing the game more skillfully than before, and they are starting to stack up some wins.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.
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