Flying the unfriendly skies with the Y2K bug
December 1, 1998
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Travelers may think nothing of flying during the upcoming New Year's holiday, but they may have second thoughts about taking to the skies the following year.
Many computer and aviation professionals, including the nation's air traffic controllers, are worried about problems the Year 2000 computer glitch might cause, and whether the Federal Aviation Administration will be able to prevent a crisis.
Air traffic controllers are trained to do their jobs with or without computers. If the Year 2000 computer problem darkens their screens, controllers say they will know what to do.
"I'm not trying to indicate that when our computers shut down that everything is hunky-dory. There is a major transition period where the heart is beating and things are happening fast, and people are yelling and screaming to try to get a handle on it," Air Traffic Controllers Union President Mike McNally said.
But the traffic cops for the nation's skyways are trained to use manual procedures to control the flow. If there are computer problems, "we go ahead and implement them," he said.
McNally's words do little to reassure others who contend that if the bug affects their high-tech equipment, air controllers will have to juggle far too many departing and arriving flights using only their brains and eyeballs.
"No one is taking it seriously enough," said Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, vice chairman of the Senate committee on the Y2K problem.
"The GAO (General Accounting Office) says the FAA is not going to be ready, and they're a pretty responsible organization," he said.
But the FAA says it will be ready.
"We got a late start, and we did fall behind early, but we have since made up that ground," said FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto.
The FAA has a lot of ground to cover. It is responsible for 655 different computer systems, and each needs expensive and time-consuming reprogramming to inoculate it against the Y2K date-recognition bug.
In the meantime, the controllers have been pressuring the FAA to create a massive contingency plan, a list of procedures for every possible scenario.
"What happens if it is a multiple site failure? What happens if we lose radar and communications all at the same time? What do we do?" asked McNally.
The FAA has agreed to provide a comprehensive backup plan by the end of 1998. And the agency says all of its computers will be Y2K-ready by midsummer 1999.
To save memory space on computer systems, computer programmers in the past shortened digital information relating to years to include only the last two digits.
Computer professionals predict that as many older applications still in use cannot distinguish the year 2000 from the year 1900, they may suffer consequences ranging from minor glitches to complete shutdown when the new millennium rolls around.
Correspondent Rick Lockridge contributed to this report.
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