Air Traffic Is a Go in Y2K Test
By Tom Kenworthy
DENVER"Convair three-niner, Denver approach. Time is one minute prior to entering the new millennium in our test systems. How do you read this transmission?"
"Loud and clear, and if we disappear off the screen, it means we went into the next millennium."
That banter between an air traffic controller and the pilot of a Federal Aviation Administration plane on final approach to Denver International Airport was about the only unexpected occurrence here late Saturday night and early Sunday morning as the FAA completed the most extensive testing to date of its readiness for 2000 and the computer fixes it has devised to avoid malfunctions.
The Year 2000 problem, often called Y2K, results from the widespread programming of computers with two-digit dates; machines without updated software may understand the year "00" as 1900, not 2000, when the new year dawns Jan. 1, and shut down or otherwise malfunction.
A minute after that conversation with the Convair pilot, as top FAA officials including Administrator Jane F. Garvey had predicted, the clocks on a bewildering array of FAA computers being used in the test flipped over to Jan. 1, 2000--and nothing happened.
"You are now flying in the year 2000 in our test system," the controller radioed the Convair pilot. "How do you read this transmission?" The answer came back: "It's loud and clear."
"Happy New Year," declared Garvey. "The [air traffic control system] worked smoothly, efficiently and safely. It is what we expected."
Determined to assure a nervous flying public that its complex computer systems that control thousands of flights a day will not go haywire on Jan. 1, FAA officials opened the agency's four-hour test Saturday night at the Denver Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility, or TRACON, to public officials and the media.
With four previous dry runs under their belts, they brimmed with confidence that the test--in which a set of backup computers with clocks moved ahead and running on Y2K-compliant software would perform the same tracking functions as those systems actually managing traffic around Denver--would succeed.
"Tonight we're going to witness the safest air traffic system in the world do what it does best," Ray Long, who heads the FAA's Year 2000 program office, said before the test began. He had announced last week that 88 percent of the agency's 423 critical computer systems are now Y2K compliant. "Our success will be gauged on the fact that nothing happens."
Even some who have been critical of the FAA's Y2K readiness in the past were impressed by the agency's progress in meeting its June 30 target for full compliance and with the performance of its computer systems, including those tracking aircraft in flight, monitoring weather and even managing unstaffed radio beacons.
"Compared to a year ago, I have a much higher confidence level," said Kenneth M. Mead, inspector general of the Transportation Department.
Thomas Browne, head of the Air Transport Association's millennium project, said the successful completion of the Y2K test "should reassure the public that the air traffic control system will be ready for the new century."
Browne was confident enough to make that statement in a press release distributed before Saturday's test was complete and well before the FAA finishes a more thorough analysis of the data and announces the results Tuesday.
Mead predicted that attention would shift to whether foreign airports and carriers will be prepared. "I'll probably fly on January 1 in U.S. airspace," he said, "but I'm not going to fly in foreign airspace where there are these unknowns."
During the test in the Denver TRACON, controllers on one side of the room sat before their radar consoles and directed traffic below 23,000 feet in about a 50-mile radius from the airport. On the other side of the darkened room, computers with their clocks set ahead mirrored those real functions. As midnight came and went with no drama, TRACON operations manager John Hamen said the public should be reassured.
"I would say if they're flying, there's no need to worry about that moment," Hamen said. "We've tested the systems thoroughly."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company