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FAA passes in-flight Year 2000 test

The nation's air traffic control system and utility industry pass two separate compliance tests.

The nation's air traffic control system passed a major public test in the skies over Colorado this weekend to see if it could cope with the Year 2000 computer problem.

On Saturday night, the clocks on back-up computers in several air traffic control facilities over the Rockies were advanced to just before midnight on December 31 to check that radar, navigation, and communications systems will work normally at the end of the year. The Federal Aviation Administration said yesterday that the system passed the test.

Back to Year 2000 Index Page The FAA drill was one of two critical Y2K readiness tests conducted in the last few days. The U.S. power utilities industry said preliminary results show that back-up programs were not infected by the Year 2000 computer bug Friday in the first of two continent-wide drills to test communications systems.

Both tests mark the beginning of a huge campaign by private industries and government agencies alike to try to calm public concerns about the nation's Y2K readiness by holding public displays of their individual computer systems' compliance.

The FAA missed the government-wide March 31 deadline for Y2K compliance set by the White House. Nevertheless, the agency has promised to have all its systems Y2K-ready and back in service by June 30.

FAA and airline industry officials taking part in this weekend's test said the computers rolled over to 2000 with no obvious errors.

"The FAA test should reassure the public that the air traffic control system will be ready for the next century," said Tom Browne, Year 2000 manager for the Air Transport Association, which represents the airlines that carry more than 90 percent of U.S. air traffic.

The FAA's test data will be further analyzed over the coming days. It will be compared to the performance of the primary computers that are still working with the current date as a safety precaution.

The utilities drill marked the first of two major tests under the supervision of the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), an umbrella organization responsible for ensuring power is always available to anyone hooked up to the grid.

More than 3,000 electric utilities, all of the system operators in the United States and Canada, participated in the first of the two mammoth drills that grid operators think will prepare them for any Year 2000 electric system failures.

See special report: Date with disaster "The drill gave us a better sense of our strengths and weaknesses, in terms of our communications contingency plans," said Michael Knapp, manager of transmission for American Electric Power, a large, multistate Midwest utility.

"While we found no major problems with our back-up systems, the exercise helped us to identify areas that worked well, in addition to pinpointing areas that could be improved."

Other utilities said they were pleased with drill results. Detroit Edison, Michigan's largest electric utility, said the dependability of its back-up system, as well as those of its utility partners, was reaffirmed after the drill.

Friday's drill was chosen to correspond to the 99th day of 1999. And likewise, the second will come on another date thought to be key to testing computer systems--September 9, 1999.

Electric power officials said many computer systems in the past were programmed to shut off after reading a series of "nines," and could disrupt operations akin to the feared Year 2000 glitch.

Electric utilities are expected under the government's computer bug program to be Y2K-compliant by June 30. Friday's test did not affect regular power supply.

Government and industry have allocated billions of dollars to make sure computer systems do not crash when systems misread the date 2000.

The so-called millennium bug refers to the fact that many computers are programmed to register only the last two digits of the year, meaning that "2000" may be read as "1900." If left uncorrected, such programs could generate errors and scramble the computers that companies use to keep track of customers, run their payrolls, handle their accounts, run elevators, and monitor air traffic, some experts warn.

The NERC is best known for its series of quarterly assessments of the electric utility industry's Year 2000 readiness. In January, its last report optimistically indicated that the Year 2000 technology problem will have "a minimal impact" on electric power operations in North America, and sparked criticism by some who feel the industry's self assessment practices don't go far enough.

Meanwhile, the public appears to be betting that all will be well. Airlines and travel agents say ticket sales for the end of the year are running slightly higher than last year at this point.

Reuters contributed to this report.