Air Travelers: Y2K Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

Dec. 21, 2004
Unless the FAA prepares, it won't be just computers that are crashing.

If you think the airline industry is charging too much now, just wait for the final quarter of 1999. There will be bargains galore! In fact, airlines may have to give away the seats. And even if they do, if you have half a brain, you may not want to fly in anything more complex than a hang glider. It sure may be a heck of a lot safer. The reason is the Year 2000 computer crisis. Regardless of what Delta, United, American, US Air, Southwest, or any of the carriers do to fix their own computer systems to handle the four-digit year, all bets will be off if the feds miss the deadline. The feds being, in this case, the Federal Aviation Administration. Sure, you probably think you've heard all the doomsday scenarios. A business computer's shut down could potentially hold up sales, stop payroll, or bring production to a halt. Worst-case scenario? You'd have to shutdown the plant, furlough a few thousand workers, and twiddle your thumbs for a while until you can find enough programmers to straighten out the mess. Or install all new systems. A couple of years ought to do it. Bottom line, lots of angry customers, money lost, people thrown out of work, etc. Pretty devastating, huh? That's why most companies are busily trying to either fix the old software code they have, or install new software that is 2000-compliant. Now consider what could happen in the airline industry, where the consequences of computer failure are a lot more dire. Hundreds of thousands of people fly each day. Most business people, myself included, make one or more airline trips monthly. When we fly, our lives depend on the computer systems that air traffic controllers use. But if those systems should fail, look out. It could bring a catastrophe on an order that even the grade B movie makers in Hollywood couldn't possibly imagine. Whoops. Maybe I spoke too soon -- there's probably some director cranking out scenes for a doomsday scenario due to Y2K as you're reading this. The reason we should worry over the FAA's flight control systems is that the agency is way behind in trying to get its computer house in order. According to a February 4, 1998, report from the U.S. General Accounting Office, "At its current pace, (the FAA) will not make it in time. The agency has been severely behind schedule in completing basic awareness activities, including establishing a program manager with responsibility for its Year 2000 program and issuing a final, overall Year 2000 strategy." Are you out of your seat belt yet? Hold on, it gets worse. "Further, FAA does not know the extent of its Year 2000 problem because it has not completed key assessment activities," the GAO reports. "Specifically, it has yet to analyze the impact of its systems' not being Year 2000 compliant, inventory and assess all of its systems for date dependencies, make final its plans for addressing any identified date dependencies, or develop plans for continued operations in case systems are not corrected in time. "Until these activities are completed," the report finds, "FAA cannot know the extent to which it can trust its systems to operate safely using dates beyond 1999." And, if those systems lack compliance with the millennium date change, flying could be like playing Russian roulette. "Hundreds of critical FAA computer systems . . . control air traffic, target airlines for inspection, or provide up-to-date weather conditions to pilots and air traffic controllers. However, many of these systems could fail to perform as needed when using dates after 1999, unless proper date-related calculations can be assured." The bottom line for the airline industry, as always, is safety. And that's exactly what's at risk here. We're not talking about some obscure computer system in a data center somewhere not working properly. We're talking human lives. As the GAO report concludes, "The implications of FAA's not meeting this immovable deadline are enormous and could affect hundreds of thousands of people through customer inconvenience, increased airline costs, grounded or delayed flights, or degraded levels of safety." As usual, it takes the government a while to get to the point. But you got the message: "DEGRADED LEVELS OF SAFETY." There are two ways of looking at this. If you're one of those who thinks the Y2K crisis is a hoax or a minor problem blown out of proportion by the media, as some skeptics have suggested, you could be in for the cheapest air fares ever. Me? I'm dusting off my hang-glider . . . .

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