From the Archives: December, 1999

As we contemplate the horrors of the Mayan Decree for December 21 (the end of the world), we present another concern for horrors—the belief that when the 20th century ended, the beginning of the 21st would bring the complete crash of the Internet, computers and everything online due to a dating error installed in all computers years earlier. Called the Y2K Calamity, it nevertheless never happened, and we got through it all right.

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People who worry about the Y2K problem have for some time now been saying that it is probably not a good idea to be in an airplane during the millennium. The computers in the air traffic control system are so out-of-date there is no way they are going to survive the rollover into 2000.

When this bit of advice was first made about six months ago, however, the FAA took it as a kind of challenge. This would be their first priority. They’d make the critics eat their words.

Last week, however, the air traffic controllers system in Ronkonkoma broke down in the middle of a transfer from the old computers to the new computers, causing delays at all three of the New York airports, as well as Philadelphia. Altogether, more than 274 departing airplanes were delayed more than an hour and tens of thousands of travellers were inconvenienced. It was quite a mess.

The problem arose at about six o’clock in the morning last Monday. The old computer system called Host, which had had frequent breakdowns and for which spare parts are simply no longer available, had been replaced by a new system manufactured by IBM. That part had gone fine. They were installing a new kind of display screen, and when they plugged it into the IBM system, everything went blank. There is an automatic switching system which comes immediately into play when things don’t work and throws all the data back to the old system—but that failed also.

There is a third system on hand, even older, that can be used, but there is no automatic switch to go to it. It had to be put online manually, and this took the better part of two hours, which is what caused the delay.

When the new system is put back online (they believe the new computers simply threw too much data at the new display screen during start-up), there will be a system in place that will not only be Y2K compliant, but will also provide the traffic controllers with far more detailed information than before.

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