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FAA finds few glitches for Y2K
By Alan Levin, USA TODAY
ATLANTIC CITY - Machines are peering into the future - sort of - at the Federal Aviation Administration's sprawling technology center here. So far, the future looks pretty bland.
No planes are falling from the sky. No radar blips are disappearing. No systems are freezing up.
To the contrary, engineers testing the so-called "millennium bug'' on dozens of computers are finding the machines will be able to safely control air traffic in 2000.
But back in 1999, the view is far less upbeat. Public opinion polls show that a majority of people won't fly on Jan. 1, so leery are they of potential travel problems caused by computers gone haywire.
Congress and government groups issue scathing reports critical of the FAA and its attempts to upgrade its computers to handle the Year 2000 problem, known as "Y2K." One House committee recently gave the FAA a failing "F" grade for delays in its Y2K computer repair program, which the agency admits got off to a late start.
So just how safe will it be to fly on Jan. 1? Will airports be choked by Y2K gridlock? Can passengers expect international flights to take off on schedule?
Much remains unknown about how computers will react when the clocks strike midnight Dec. 31. But most experts agree that:
Major aviation safety systems - air traffic control computers, radar, radio transmitters and the like - are expected to function normally in 2000. Both Boeing and Airbus Industries, the world's largest airplane manufacturers, say there are no computer bugs in their cockpits that can threaten fliers' safety. Satellites that increasingly guide planes are ready for 2000, too.
How well the nation's 400 airports will do is more difficult to gauge. Each is taking its own steps to make sure the Y2K bug won't shut down baggage checks, elevators or anything else that could bring travel to a crawl. Computers at some airports control runway lights and other safety systems. But Y2K problems, if they do occur, are expected to involve less critical systems, such as those that control fuel distribution and internal radio communication .
International flights could be disrupted by a variety of large and small computer failures. Some radio beacons used to guide planes might stop working, forcing high-altitude air routes to change slightly . Or, some countries' air traffic control systems might crash, making it difficult for commercial flights to enter their airspace. But most developed nations are working to anticipate and fix potential problems, and other countries should have no problems because their systems are so simple.
To some degree, many officials say, the aviation industry is better prepared to deal with Y2K than most other economic sectors because it regularly handles weather problems and equipment difficulties. Pilots already know how to deal with a failed radio beacon, for example.
So, just as a series of heavy snowstorms shut down Detroit's airport in January, so too could Y2K problems hamper specific airports around the USA. But threats to safety are far less likely.
"I don't think there will be widespread failures of baggage machines or airport lighting in the way that you do during a major snowstorm," says Dick Marchi of the Airports Council International.
Countdown to 2000
"Four, three, two, one, zero," says Cheryl White, a member of the FAA's Y2K team here.
White is counting down the seconds until 2000, following the movement of a digital clock at the top of a long-range radar display terminal. As far as the computer running the system knows, the date is Jan. 1, 2000.
The switch to 2000 is seamless. Radar blips, previously recorded and fed into the system as if they were real, continue their steady movement across the screen. The computer displays flight information as usual.
Y2K problems generally result from early computer programmers' attempts to represent dates with only two digits, such as "99" for 1999. When 2000 arrives, those computers might assume that "00" is 1900, or have no idea what it means. That, in turn, could cause a variety of malfunctions or even failures.
Computers and software from the era when these techniques were popular - mainly through the 1980s - proliferate in aviation, particularly in the aging air traffic control system. Virtually every sophisticated electronic system used by pilots, air traffic controllers and airlines uses some type of computer.
Until recently, the widely held fear was that air travel could be risky because there was no way that the FAA could catch up with the problem before the new millennium starts.
The FAA identified 626 computer systems, including 425 considered "critical,'' that might be vulnerable to Y2K. But a search for problems on those computers found fewer and simpler cases than expected, says Raymond Long, director of the FAA's Y2K program.
Long says 299 systems needed repair or replacement, and the fixes were mostly easy. Of those systems, 75 were important to air traffic control.
Finding the bugs
Luckily for the FAA, many of its computer systems do not pay attention to the date or, when they do, they do not rely on the date for computations. Even if a computer system cannot understand the year 2000, that failure might not affect how the computer runs. Only in cases where key operations depend on the date will a computer fail on New Year's Day.
Take ARTS III-E Version A6.04. This software package performs an important role in controlling air traffic, taking radar data and displaying it on screens so that it makes sense to controllers. The software is in several air traffic control centers around the country .
FAA engineers found a Y2K bug in the software, but it wasn't a threat to air traffic control. The radar display was unaffected because the transmission of radar data does not depend on the date.
Instead, error messages, which are used to track routine maintenance and other computer functions, would not print dates properly after the new year, reading "01/01/XX" instead of "01/01/00." A slight rewrite of the software solved the problem.
Another example is the HOST computer, one of the FAA's chief workhorses in the air traffic system. It allows controllers to track high-altitude traffic across the country.
The HOST computer, the same one used for Y2K tests here, made headlines more than a year ago when IBM, which made the machine, said it could not guarantee it would function in the new millennium.
When FAA officials asked IBM what the problem was, the computer company said it didn't know because the machines were too old. But rather than scrap the computers, the FAA hired two retired IBM programmers who had helped develop HOST in the 1980s. What they found was not too frightening.
Despite initial fears, the computer's software had been built to understand dates in 2000 and beyond. It did have one minor problem: It failed to recognize that 2000 is a leap year, a common mistake because 1900 was not a leap year. The software was altered to eliminate the glitch.
Working in sync
But these are only two of dozens of systems that are key to moving planes. From the computerized flight plans that pilots file to the transmittal of weather reports, the FAA must make certain that each not only works, but will work together with others.
To do this, the FAA in recent months has conducted a series of complex tests simulating the aviation system in operation. In one, FAA computers exchanged weather reports with computers in Russia and Canada while all were set with a date in 2000.
In another, controllers directed simulated traffic over Oakland, Calif., for several hours, "radioing" testers who pretended to be pilots.
By doing so, the FAA could test numerous systems, such as the computers that "hand off" planes from one controller to another and systems that operate radar displays in airport towers.
Also tested were computers that essentially e-mail flight instructions to pilots before departure and communication systems that controllers use to send messages to pilots flying hundreds of miles offshore.
In all cases to date, the myriad computer systems never failed because of a Y2K glitch. A full "live" test using real planes over Denver is scheduled for this weekend.
Y2K efforts are far less centralized for on-the-ground airport operations. Just getting information is difficult. Spokesmen at two of the nation's busiest airports, Los Angeles International and Hartsfield Atlanta International , did not respond to USA TODAY's requests for detailed information on Y2K programs, saying only that they would be prepared.
Marchi, who oversees technical issues for the Airports Council International, says airports are in different stages of tackling the problem.
Luckily, he says, many problems with computer systems will be largely transparent to travelers, and there are simple alternatives should systems fail next year.
For example, some modern airports control runway lights with computer systems. If those computers don't operate properly on Jan. 1, an electrician should be able to manually operate the lights, Marchi says.
For many large airports, these systems will be repaired or replaced by the end of the year. Airports that don't act that fast, Marchi says, will have to anticipate where problems might occur and deploy extra employees to prevent passenger delays.
So far, because of confidentiality agreements, the assessments of international and federal agencies tracking foreign countries' responses to Y2K's impact on their aviation systems have not been released. The State Department and the FAA will begin issuing advisories about foreign travel after July 1.
Meanwhile, Long and other top FAA officials, including Administrator Jane Garvey, are so sure that planes will fly safely and on time that they plan to be airborne as the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31.
Says Long, "The same safe and efficient air traffic control system that we have today is the system that we'll have on Jan. 1, 2000.''
-- Norm (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 09, 1999
"The same safe and efficient air traffic control system that we have today is the system that we'll have on Jan. 1, 2000."
-- A Cynic (email@example.com), April 09, 1999.
The HOST computer, the same one used for Y2K tests here, made headlines more than a year ago when IBM, which made the machine, said it could not guarantee it would function in the new millennium. When FAA officials asked IBM what the problem was, the computer company said it didn't know because the machines were too old. But rather than scrap the computers, the FAA hired two retired IBM programmers who had helped develop HOST in the 1980s. What they found was not too frightening. Despite initial fears, the computer's software had been built to understand dates in 2000 and beyond. It did have one minor problem: It failed to recognize that 2000 is a leap year, a common mistake because 1900 was not a leap year. The software was altered to eliminate the glitch.
So does that mean they have cancelled the contract for G3 replacements they announced in Nov of 1998? Re: link:
New FAA Computers
If so, post the reference. Further, there is no such beast as a "HOST" computer! They are referring to IBM 3083 model computers whichact as a host computer for the ATC software.
-- RD. ->H (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 09, 1999.
You seem to be posting a lot of optimistic Y2K stories. Personally, embedded controllers in electric, water and fuel utilities and providers concern me most. These probably would have the most immediate effect on people. I figure most of the general-purpose computers running large applications can be fixed (except for rail- roads), or "faked".
If you see any honest good-news stories about embedded controllers as listed above, please post. Sadly, today's NERC (electric co) test does not satisfy this - the NERC document that went out months ago asked companies to only test what they know would work (so it looked good for the media).
-- Anonymous99 (Anonymous99@Anonymous99.xxx), April 09, 1999.
Better article, better background information than I expected.
-- Robert A Cook, PE (Kennesaw, GA) (Cook.R@csaatl.com), April 09, 1999.
But I reserve the right to remain very skeptical.
-- Robert A Cook, PE (Kennesaw, GA) (Cook.R@csaatl.com), April 09, 1999.
From the Statement by Kenneth M. Mead, Inspector General, Department of Transportation, before the Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, on March 15, 1999:
"With less than 300 days to the Year 2000, DOT still has significant challenges ahead. FAA is facing a unique implementation challenge. The ATC system fixes, after being operated in test-center environments, have to be installed at multiple sites throughout the system. For example, the Terminal Doppler Weather Radar system provides detection of weather events such as wind shear and microbursts. FAA renovated the computer used to support this system, and has to install it at 47 sites. Implementing repairs into the real operational environment has risk due to potential complications resulting from local adaptations to ATC systems (changes made by local technicians). In the past, FAA has encountered problems installing test-center solutions at locations throughout the ATC system due to local changes.
FAA has 21 of the 65 ATC systems that have been fixed, tested, and installed at field sites. The remaining 44 systems are the most complex, and have to be installed at about 3,000 field sites"
-- Sysman (email@example.com), April 09, 1999.