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1998-05-07 20:41:23


Airline Industry: 17,000 Suppliers. Is Even One Compliant?



The fact that ABC news would run this article is indicative of the shift of attitude among reporters. They haven't yet seen that their careers and their pension plans have less than two years to go. But they're becoming uneasy. The verifiable news is bad. The good news is PR flak and promises with no evidence. Slowly but surely, word is getting out: the world is at a precipice. The average guy is hearing this as background noise. When he at last hears it, your mobility will end. Especially in the air.

The first man quoted went right to the journalist's shibboleth: "Planes falling from the sky." It's nice to see somene from inside the industry torpedo that beloved showpiece of uninformed journalism.

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May 7 — As the millennium bug looms on the horizon, Tom Browne is racing against time to make sure America’s planes keep flying. He says he’s optimistic, but if computer systems can’t understand the year 2000, some flights could be grounded.

“Airplanes aren’t going to fall out of the sky,” Browne says. “The issue is whether they will take off.”

Last December, Browne took the helm of the Year 2000 project of the Air Transport Association, which represents 27 airlines and shipping services from American Airlines to UPS. His job is to contact suppliers to see whether their systems are ready for the millennium.

America’s skies are maintained by a network involving 290 airlines, 550 airports, 17,000 suppliers and the FAA. Each player must meticulously examine their equipment. “Are we going to have fuel?” he asks. “Are we going to have runway lights? Are we going to have fire trucks?” . . .

Sharpening The Sabre

One company with an early deadline is The Sabre Group, which runs a massive travel reservation system. Every computer must be repaired in time for travelers to make early reservations. Because Sabre takes reservations as many as 333 days in advance, said spokesperson Jennifer Hudson, “there’s an urgent need to make systems compliant early.” Sabre is setting up a security system to keep bad dates from entering their database. That means misbehaving airlines, hotels and car rental companies could see their schedules locked out. . . .

Many Needle In Many Haystacks

The aviation industry uses so many systems that checking for problems is like finding a needle in a haystack. USAir expects to spend $25 million and Southwest Airlines at least $19 million on repairs. Delta alone has 400 employees looking for bugs and trying to fix them. “We are checking every single piece of equipment in the company.” said Delta spokesman Kip Smith. . . .

Will Air Traffic Systems Survive

The computer systems with the most-watched problems belong to the FAA’s air traffic control system. The agency has been behind schedule in checking and fixing 23 million lines of programming code on 250 machines, some of which are so old they still use vacuum tubes. Their deadline is June 30, 1999.

The most notable are 30 ancient IBM mainframes in air traffic control system. Big Blue says they will be unreliable come 1/1/00 and are no longer supported. That means big trouble, says Meta Group analyst Aaron Zornes. “Those air traffic control systems are so old they can’t replace the vacuum tubes on them anymore,” he says. “There are going to be dire consequences.”

FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto says the computers will be fixed anyway as part of their massive repair project and notes that 125 systems are already Y2K complaint. “Renovation on the remaining is talking place as we speak.”

Meanwhile the FAA is setting up Year 2000 contingency plans in case of outages. Right now, the FAA is in big trouble. . . .

The industry point man says his biggest fears are not problems with planes, but with electrical power and telecommunications. “If there’s no power, we’re all sitting in the dark anyway,” he says. “Whether the computers are fixed may be irrelevant if the phone company stops working.”


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