Y2K threatens U.S. transportation

Congress warns that the nation's transportation industry is likely to suffer major interruptions come the Year 2000.

3 min read
It may have been buried under the fury of news coverage of Kenneth Starr's investigation of the President, but Congress warned late yesterday that the nation's transportation industry is likely to suffer major interruptions come the Year 2000.

The leading senator on the Y2K problem, Bob Bennett (R-Utah), said he is concerned that the transportation system as a whole may not be able to "transition through the millennium without major disruption."

The Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, of which Bennett is the chairman, heard testimony from Transportation Department (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration officials as well as executives from American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and representatives from major metro public transportation services.

"Year 2000 malfunctions in the area of transportation are at their best an inconvenience, they can escalate to cause serious commercial palpitations, but they must not and cannot put our citizens at risk," Senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut), vice chair of the committee, said in his opening statement provided to CNET News.com.

According to a Bloomberg report, one DOT official told the committee that the United States might ban U.S. airlines from flying to and from countries that can't prove their air traffic control systems are free of the Year 2000 computer glitch, a Transportation Department official said.

Deputy Secretary of Transportation Mortimer Downey said there are countries that he wouldn't fly to on or after January 1, 2000, because of the safety issues raised by the computer glitch.

There are parts of the world where air traffic control is rudimentary and awareness of this issue is almost nonexistent, he said. For this reason, the DOT and the State Department are already looking into whether it may be necessary to bar U.S. air traffic to these countries until standards are met, Downey was quoted as saying in the Bloomberg report.

The DOT has been criticized within the government and outside the government for its slow progress on preparing its computer systems for the year 2000. Earlier this week, it was cited in a federal government report as being among the agencies furthest behind in their Y2K efforts.

As it usually does for each of its hearings, the committee surveyed the transportation sector to assess the overall preparedness of the industry.

"We undertook this survey because, as in previous hearings, we have found that such assessments are not available from any other source, public or private," Bennett said in his opening statement provided to CNET News.com.

Only one-third of the transportation companies surveyed have completed assessment of their systems, according to a report released late yesterday by the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem. Only half of those companies studied said they have begun contingency planning, causing the chairman of the committee to conclude that the transportation industry will experience significant interruptions due to the Year 2000 bug.

The committee queried a total of 32 airlines, airports, railroads, maritime shippers, trucking companies, and metropolitan transit authorities. However, only 16 responded to the committee's requests, which dismayed Bennett.

"We made this survey so simple that I can only conclude that those who didn't respond are either unaware of the severity of the problem or are embarrassed over their lack of progress," he said.

The bug has its roots in 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 fooled into thinking the year is 1900. The glitch could throw out of whack everything from bank balances and elevator maintenance to building security procedures.

Since its inception in April, the Senate committee has built a reputation for not holding back on dark forecasts for industries and government agencies which have not cleansed their systems of the Y2K bug. It has also openly criticized those who have fallen behind in their efforts to deal with the problem. Yesterday was no different.

The Senate hearing explored safety and convenience concerns for the traveler and commuter, as well as the potentially paralyzing effect the millennium bug could have on businesses that are reliant on "just-in-time" inventories and prompt transportation of manufactured goods.

"With the hard part yet to come--testing and implementation--I am forced to conclude that there may be significant interruptions in the transportation industry," Bennett said.