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1998-01-14 08:39:05


Airline Industry in Jeopardy: FAA May Not Make the Deadline



This report on the antiquated equipment of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) casts a dark shadow on the airline industry's future -- and every industry dependent on the airlines. The existing FAA system will not operate properly in 2000 and beyond.

All the rhetoric of ill-informed reporters who quote the urban myth about y2k doomsayers who predict that "planes will fall from the sky" -- no one has ever predicted this in print -- will not avoid the reality of 2000: there will be no more airline industry if y2k destroys the existing flight monitoring equipment. There will be no just-in-time shipments of computer parts from Taiwan. There will be no business trips hither and yon. There will be empty runways.

The report focuses on one IBM computer model, but late in the report, this fact appears: "The FAA has 250 separate computer systems, most of which will require fixes. . . ."

This is a terrifying report. It should be front-page news. It isn't.

This is from the SAN JOSE MERCURY (Jan. 12).

* * * * * * *

WASHINGTON -- A set of crucial computers in the nation's air traffic control system should not be used beyond December 1999, because they may not operate reliably when the date rolls over to Jan. 1, 2000, and there is no way to predict the effect on air traffic, according to IBM, which built the computers.

But the official in charge of that system at the Federal Aviation Administration said on Monday that ``it would be an extraordinary feat'' to replace about 40 mainframe computers by then. Instead, his agency, with the help of a retired IBM programmer and a team of software experts, is racing to determine whether the problems can be anticipated and eliminated before the turn of the century. . . .

The extent of problems with the air traffic computers is not certain, but experts say that the 3083 mainframe model referred to in a letter from IBM to an FAA contractor, might, for example, refuse to accept flight plans for planes that take off on December 31, 1999, and land on Jan. 1. That landing would be 99 years in the past, from the computer's point of view.

``Who knows, it could do anything,'' said Michael Fanfalone, the president of the the Professional Airways System Specialists the union that represents FAA technicians. There might be no problem, he said, but ``no one knows until it's up and running and there's no way you can take that kind of risk.''

Already, FAA teams have found, deep in the computer code, a monthly command that enables a computer to switch from one cooling pump to another; if it is not fixed, experts say, that routine could stop running, allowing the computers to overheat and fail if the pump breaks down. In fact, experts say, there could be many such land mines -- buried in millions of lines of computer code -- that could cause failures for days, weeks or months after the new year.

``We're kind of worried about it,'' said Jack Ryan, a former FAA manager who is now the air traffic control expert at the Air Transport Association, the trade association of the major airlines. ``I think the FAA has the right sense of urgency, although it's a little bit late.'' . . .

The computers in question are at the 20 Air Route Traffic Control Centers, which handle all the high-altitude, long-distance traffic in the country. The 3083 models were once common in business and industry but few remain in service, experts say. IBM stopped shipping them about 10 years ago, but some of the software on the FAA models is even older, dating from the early 1970s.

The FAA has 250 separate computer systems, most of which will require fixes but the 3083 is the only one that IBM says can't be debugged before 2000. . . .

In the October letter from IBM to the FAA contractor Lockheed Martin Air Traffic Management, it said, ``I.B.M. remains convinced that the appropriate skills and tools do not exist to conduct a complete Year 2000 test assessment'' of the 3083 computers. ``I.B.M. believes it is imperative that the F.A.A. replace the equipment'' before 2000.


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