Tick, tick, tick. The millennium bomb is counting down, potentially to wreak havoc just as champagne corks and fireworks explode to welcome in the new century.

Like most bombs, until the fuse is lit no-one is quite sure whether this will be a dud or a disaster, but there is a clear problem. Computers which are not compliant will be unable to distinguish the year 2000 from the year 1900 because they only read the last two digits of a year. Put that in the context of an air traffic control system and the consequences are potentially dire.

In Washington DC it is as if the unseasonally early budding cherry trees have switched on a warning light and a mad spring hare attitude has set in. In the scramble to stave off a huge and highly public embarrassment, in which the US ATC system is threatened with grinding to a halt on 1 January 2000, new timetables and solutions are being magicked out of hats as congressmen threaten the heads of those at the top.

The panic was sparked by a General Accounting Office report, which found the Federal Aviation Administration to be seriously wanting in its preparations. According to the report, the FAA is 'severely behind schedule' in completing even basic awareness activities. 'The FAA's progress in making its systems ready for the year 2000 has been too slow. At its current pace, it will not make it in time,' the GAO warns. The potential consequences include degraded safety, grounded or delayed flights, increased airline costs, and customer inconvenience.

While the FAA did initiate year 2000 problem awareness activities in May 1996, they were not given priority and there has been little in the way of coordinated follow-up. A programme manager was not appointed until July 1997 and by the end of last year there was still no strategic plan in place.

Since publication of this damning report, matters have been addressed at an almost unseemly pace. FAA administrator Jane Garvey and Department of Transportation secretary Rodney Slater have each given testimonies to Senate subcommittees. The name of the game has been confidence restoration. While Garvey admitted to the technology subcommittee that the FAA was behind schedule, and that was unacceptable, she laid out a five-phase plan to tackle the problem and added a personal guarantee. 'The question on everyone's mind is, can we make it? And my answer is yes,' Garvey told the anxious congressmen.

Then on 9 March, the FAA produced its Y2K project plan and a dedicated programme office with its own director and deputy to coordinate all the FAA's year 2000 activities. Aided by Coopers & Lybrand consultants and headed by new programme office director Raymond Long, the project sets stiff new deadlines on the road to compliance.

By 30 September, all systems will be renovated and all computer date codes fixed. By 31 March next year, testing on all those fixes will be completed and by 30 June 1999, all systems will be certificated as year 2000 compliant. This new timetable brings forward the certification date by four months. The original date of 1 November had been severely criticised for being too close to 31 December for comfort. But sceptics also believed the FAA would struggle even to meet the November date, so why should they now have faith in this enormous task being achieved in even less time?

The FAA answers that of the 209 ATC services that are defined as mission critical, 125 are already compliant. Long, who headed up the air traffic services year 2000 programme before his promotion, missed no deadlines, adds the FAA. He will be under severe pressure to continue that good record in this new, much more high-profile position because those above him are now under an intense spotlight. Congressman Rod Portman has pointed out to Garvey that while she cannot be blamed for the FAA's lack of progress before she joined the agency last year, she is accountable for the final outcome. 'If the FAA doesn't make its deadlines, it's going to be a black mark on your record,' Portman told Garvey.

The airlines are adopting the view that they will have to take the FAA at its word since they have to concentrate on their own year 2000 programmes. As a way of ensuring this happens, at the end of 1997 the Air Transport Association appointed Tom Browne as executive director, year 2000 programme.

Browne is the communications link between the airlines and airports, government agencies and major suppliers. 'We have been working with the FAA and have looked at the plan they have put together and it's a solid plan,' he says. 'I think they have the right attitude about dealing with this. We are not 100 per cent confident yet that everything is OK, but we are very confident that they have a good plan.'

Browne agrees that the recent rush of activity has been the result of 'a lot of nudging', but adds that the FAA is not alone in not giving the issue priority until the last minute. 'We found out, for instance, that the airports have not done a very good job in general. My view is that everyone is behind. Everybody has sloughed off to some extent, but the FAA is a very visible target.'

Visible and also an international standards setter. Under its International Aviation Safety Assessment programme, the FAA has been assessing and categorising the world's civil aviation authorities, and severely curtailing the operations of airlines into the US if their authority's standards are insufficient. This assumption of international authority makes it all the more important that the FAA is not caught out by something like the year 2000 issue - which has been known about for a long time and must be dealt with by all civil aviation authorities.

Not that Raymond Long is planning on being caught out. Apparently, he intends to spend the early hours of 1 January 2000 flying across the US from east to west, celebrating the start of the millennium four times over as he enters each new time zone.

Source: Airline Business