ICAO and IATA to monitor world aviation during Y2k rollover, from centres in Montreal

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December 27, 1999

ICAO and IATA to monitor world aviation during Y2K rollover, from centres in Montreal

MONTREAL (CP) -- As the year 2000 arrives in Fiji, experts in Montreal will be keenly watching computer screens to see if anything goes wrong with the South Pacific country's airports or air traffic control system. It will be the first test for the Global Co-ordination Unit, set up by a United Nations agency to monitor the world's aviation for any Y2K bugs that might disrupt air traffic. Over four days, teams of about a dozen each will work in non-stop relays at the unit, set up in a conference room of the International Civil Aviation Organization's head office here. Across the street, a similar room has been prepared at the headquarters of a sister organization, the International Air Transport Association. Their similar function, under preparation for months, is to gather aviation-related information from seven regional centres throughout the world. While state aviation bodies are responsible for dealing with problems, only the centres in Montreal will have the global picture. Their duty is to inform adjacent or far-flung regions and airlines about potential problems. "This is the first time in the history of the world there's been a global contingency plan," said Brian Bowers, who set up the ICAO unit. Both ICAO, the UN agency that deals with international security and safety, and IATA, which represents the commercial interests of 265 member airlines, are based in Montreal. The ICAO centre has computers connected to regional units in Miami, Lima, Dakar, Brussels, Cairo, Nairobi, Bangkok and Washington, D.C. Throughout the Y2K rollover, information will flow into Montreal from the regional units and will signal anything that goes wrong, called an "event". This could be a blackout at one of 1,200 international airports, a failed navigation aid, gaps in air traffic control communications, or a downed radar or telephone line. The staff will also be aware of severe weather or local power outages that could stop traffic lights and tie up traffic leading to airports. "With the myriad of integrated (computer) chips, it's inevitable that something will fail," Bowers said cheerily. The staff will not know immediately, however, if the dreaded Y2K bug is the culprit. "If anything goes on, if it's Y2K or not, we won't be able to distinguish," said IATA spokeswoman Nancy Gautier. "If the power goes out in Canada it could be because of an ice storm. "It'll take a long time to analyse that. So what's important to us is not to sit there and twiddle our thumbs but to see how we can work around it." Staff will be working in shifts for four days, hoping -- and expecting -- that there won't be enough "events" to keep them from relaxing before giant TV screens featuring millennium-related celebrations. Having a central clearing house for aviation information will help teams scramble to fix problems before the year 2000 rollover reaches their area. For example, only a handful of manufacturers make air traffic control equipment. So if there is a glitch in Beijing, "they could call ahead and warn other airports with the same technology to hit a button or change some software," said Bowers. As of Dec. 20, 171 of ICAO's 185 member states, representing 99.5 per cent of international traffic, had reported their air traffic systems were ready or would be by Dec. 31. Despite this and assurances by airlines that their computer systems will weather the Y2K storm, travellers are avoiding airplanes on what is usually a slow period anyway. The British government's Y2K agency issued an advisory in September urging people not to travel unless "absolutely essential" for five weeks starting after Christmas Day. Some airlines including Northwest Airlines and KLM are slashing most international flights on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, but they say it's simply because there is no demand. When it's 12 hours before the new year, air traffic controllers are to increase the space between aircraft in the air, as a precaution, but Bowers said this will not affect plane schedules. The ICAO Global Co-ordinating Unit has taken no risks that it could be a Y2K bug victim. It has two satellite systems for communication, two telephone systems, two Internet providers and even electric power plugs leading to a diesel-fired generator. About a dozen staff will be there continuously from 10 p.m. EST on Dec. 30 until Jan. 4. Hotel rooms have been booked next door so there won't be any commuting risks. They include personnel from ICAO, IATA, airlines and the Canadian government. ICAO country representatives will drop by to see how their country fares in the rollover.

-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), December 27, 1999

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