Because numerous foreign countries have not provided adequate information about the Year 2000 computer readiness of their air traffic control systems, Clinton administration officials need to develop a policy on whether U.S. airliners should fly to countries where Y2K uncertainties exist next year, according to the Transportation Department's top investigator.

"With only 93 days left to go, providing timely and quality information to the traveling public remains a challenge," DOT Inspector General Kenneth M. Mead said in testimony prepared for a Senate hearing today.

The Federal Aviation Administration faces a major decision on "what action, if any, it will take when a foreign country does not provide sufficient information for independent assessment," Mead added.

Given the lack of data, Mead recommends that the FAA rethink its Y2K strategy for dealing with foreign air traffic control systems.

"As we understand the approach FAA plans to take, flight restrictions will only be imposed if there is a known, verifiable safety problem," Mead said. "Where there are significant uncertainties about a foreign country's Year 2000 readiness, we are not persuaded this approach will be sufficient because FAA is not likely to have verified evidence of problems until after Dec. 31, 1999."

The U.S. government, having fixed the bulk of its most critical computer systems, has increasingly turned its attention to Y2K readiness overseas and whether potential problems might disrupt the American economy. Since March, the departments of Transportation, State and Defense have been working together to evaluate the Y2K status of foreign nations but have struggled with sketchy information from abroad.

In his testimony, prepared for the Senate special committee on Y2K, chaired by Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), Mead provided a snapshot of the data available to U.S. policymakers.

Mead reported that, as of last week, 34 of 185 countries belonging to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) have not responded to its Y2K survey. About 1 million passengers were flown between the United States and those 34 countries last year. Most of these countries are in Africa and Asia, Mead said.

Numerous other countries that did respond to the ICAO survey failed to provide adequate data, including 28 nations frequently visited by U.S. airlines, Mead said. These countries are in the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Asia and former Soviet states, Mead said.

In separate testimony for today's Senate hearing, FAA Administrator Jane F. Garvey said the government "will take appropriate steps" to deal with any serious safety problems abroad.

"Based on the information we have seen and collected to date, it appears that if any Y2K impact is felt, it would take the form of limited disruption of service in some locations," Garvey said.

She said the FAA would conduct "extensive international testing" with 23 nations by December to ensure voice and data exchanges can be made through air traffic control communications systems after the calendar changes to 2000.