The Federal Aviation Administration was severely criticized yesterday by members of the House Subcommittee on Technology for not telling the whole story on the status of its efforts to prepare its computer systems for the Year 2000.
The hearing came after the aviation safety board reported last week that it had repaired 70 percent of air traffic systems and 67 percent of all systems it regards as "mission critical."
But the House subcommittee based its findings on recent scathing reports from the General Accounting Office that said the agency is frighteningly behind schedule to be ready for the change of the century.
The discrepancy between the two reports even drew criticism from the head senator on the Year 2000 issue.
"I wish I could say I'm confident in the claims of the FAA," Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem , said after the hearing. "But given GAO's scathing reports, the FAA's assertions that it has made such tremendous progress are very questionable. Our committee's upcoming hearing on the transportation sector will not only include an in-depth review of Y2K flight readiness of the FAA, but other aspects of air, rail, shipping, and mass transit."
FAA officials defended their findings and said the differences in the reports are in the schedule it has set for itself to make its systems Y2K compliant.
"The Office of Management and Budget and the GAO want all computer systems tested and certified by March 31, 1999," FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said. "We will have 90 percent of our computers tested and certified by March 31, 1999, and everything completed by June 30, 1999. We're only behind one month."
But as the Year 2000 quickly approaches, one month, especially in 1999, could mean the difference between being prepared for the century date change or not, according to government officials.
The bug comes from antiquated hardware and software formats that denote years in two-digit formats, such as "98" for 1998 and "99" for 1999. The glitch will occur in 2000, when computers are either fooled into thinking the year is 1900 or interpret the 2000 as a meaningless "00." The glitch could throw out of whack everything from bank systems to building security procedures, critics warn.
"While I hope the FAA is doing as well as it says, experience has taught me to be suspicious of easy answers and quick fixes," Bennett said. "When lives literally hang in the balance, as they do with our nation's airlines, we must make sure every critical system is tested, retested, and tested yet again under conditions which realistically simulate air traffic."
The FAA was sharply criticized in Congress earlier this year for its slow start in dealing with the Year 2000 problem. But the FAA now says it is on track to meet a September 30 government guideline for all departments and agencies to have repairs made.
FAA's task has been complicated by the elderly patchwork of hundreds of computers that make up the air traffic control system.
Contingency plans are being developed just in case some systems fail but that would mean that, to preserve safety, fewer planes would fly, which could spell huge delays on the ground.
Even if the U.S. air traffic control system is ready by the end of next year, the safety of millions of passengers will depend on how well other countries address the issue, aviation officials warn.