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  FAA Flying to Catch Up With 'Events'

By Stephen Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 1999; Page A19

The Federal Aviation Administration has entered the stretch run on Y2K.

By the end of June, 33 special FAA management offices, each staffed with about 250 technicians, must successfully complete approximately 4,000 "events," as the FAA describes its Y2K computer work. The "events" can range from installing new computer hardware to making a software "patch" that will keep automated equipment running after Dec. 31.

At a House hearing yesterday, FAA officials expressed confidence they will wrap up their critical Y2K work on schedule. "Within the past year, we have not only caught up with much of the rest of the federal government, we have surpassed the expectations of many," FAA Administrator Jane F. Garvey said.

But 26 complicated systems that support air traffic control will be among the last to be fixed. The FAA's challenge will be "to install the fix in the field and make sure it works," Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth M. Mead testified.

Joel C. Willemssen, a Y2K specialist at the General Accounting Office, praised the Year 2000 conversion team at the FAA but described the agency as "trying to play catch-up."

Given that there are no guarantees that every computer glitch will be discovered, Meade urged FAA officials to get more participation by its two key unions--the Professional Airways Systems Specialists and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association--in the development of contingency plans. In case of an unexpected failure, Meade noted, much of the responsibility for continued--and safe--air traffic operations would fall to members of the unions.

Garvey reaffirmed that she would continue seeking union advice in writing contingency plans.

Despite the concerns, the testimony before Reps. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) and Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), co-chairs for the hearing, indicated a higher level of confidence in the FAA's Y2K effort than before.

Meade said he thought the FAA turning point came in February 1998, when the agency acknowledged it was seven months behind schedule and would have to redouble its Y2K efforts. Over the last 90 days, the FAA has completed more than half of its Y2K changes and has embarked on its last phase of testing, the "end-to-end" tests that check whether systems can exchange data properly and whether individual fixes of components will work together as a whole.

The Year 2000 computer problem, often called Y2K or the "Millennium Bug," dates to the 1960s, when programmers tried to conserve computer memory and save money by using two-digit date fields. Without reprogramming and other fixes, industry experts say that many systems will interpret "00" not as 2000 but as 1900, causing computer malfunctions or shutdowns.

Garvey and Ray Long, the FAA Year 2000 project director, said a major test of computer links will be conducted at 2 a.m., April 10, in Colorado, when an FAA plane flies from Colorado Springs to Grand Junction to Denver International Airport. During the flight, FAA computer systems will be set forward to April 10, 2000. Data from the operational and test sides of the systems will be collected and analyzed to ensure that the various fixes to systems work together during an actual flight.

Foreign Aviation Up in the Air

While the FAA seems closer to solving its Y2K problems, U.S. transportation officials said they will not be able to report on the international aviation scene until more data become available, probably in late summer.

Deputy Transportation Secretary Mortimer L. Downey said the administration would likely consider issuing travel advisories to warn Americans about Y2K risks abroad. Garvey predicted the FAA might face "some very, very hard decisions" on Year 2000 readiness of foreign airlines and airports.

Chemical Firms May Need Help

Large, multinational chemical companies are preparing for Y2K problems, but smaller companies--some located near residential areas--may not have the money or the technical know-how for fixing their computer problems, according to a report prepared by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

Little information exists about the Y2K readiness of small and medium companies, "but efforts on the Y2K problem appear to be less than appropriate based upon inputs from many experts," the report said.

The report, prepared at the request of the special Senate Year 2000 technology committee, urged the Clinton administration to develop an information clearinghouse, with Y2K checklists tailored, in particular, to the needs of manufacturers and users of propane, chlorine and ammonia.

About 85 million Americans live within a five-mile radius of 66,000 facilities that handle hazardous chemicals, the report noted.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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