FAA conducts end-to-end Y2K test

The Federal Aviation Administration scheduled a test for Saturday at Denver International Airport to demonstrate how its air traffic control systems will operate in the Year 2000.

The end-to-end test was designed to involve every air traffic control system at Denver that is used to manage aircraft from takeoff through landing. The test included tracking aircraft with the computer system clocks set forward to Dec. 31, 1999, and then rolled over to Jan. 1, 2000. The test was scheduled to take place from 10 p.m. April 10 to 2 a.m. April 11.

Because every air traffic control system used in the country will be in use during the Denver test, it would illustrate whether the Year 2000-compliant systems will work on a national level. "The Denver test is a national test," Ray Long, director of the FAA's Year 2000 program office, said last week before the test took place. "This will signify that the National Airspace System will operate."

The FAA had tested in a laboratory setting how the ATC systems will operate after the Year 2000, but the Denver test was designed to show how these systems operate with live, rather than simulated, air traffic. Denver is the only location in the country that allows the FAA to "split" the primary systems so that the test systems, which have been set forward to 2000, and live systems do not interact.

The systems that operated in test mode tracked real aircraft and received the same input as the live systems, but they were not used to manage air traffic. Long said last week that the FAA would record how the test and live systems performed and overlay the information to create a 3-D picture. If all went as anticipated, the information should match up.

"The purpose of the test is to make sure all the fixes are made and also gain public confidence that the National Airspace System will operate as we say it will," Long said.

The test also involved en route and terminal systems located throughout Colorado, including the host computer. The host computer processes radar surveillance data and flight plans, automated radar and beacon tracking systems, and telecommunications and weather systems. The en route center in Longmont, Colo., and the tower and terminal radar approach control facility at Denver as well as ATC facilities at Colorado Springs and Grand Junction were involved in the test.

Michael McNally, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the end-to-end test is a good idea to ensure that systems will operate in 2000. In general, NATCA thinks the FAA has been doing a good job addressing the Year 2000 problem, he said. "However, where we have major concerns is with contingency plans. What happens if something does go wrong?" McNally said.

The controllers need to know, for example, what procedures to follow if the radar goes down, whether the FAA will enforce a strict flow-control policy on Dec. 31 to manage aircraft and how many controllers need to be working that night. "We're still having problems getting the [FAA] to do those plans," McNally said. "We're [now] getting more militant about it."

The FAA is doing the right thing by conducting an end-to-end test, which is an essential step for agencies, said Renny DiPentima, president of SRA Federal Systems and a former federal information technology executive. However, it may be a process that agencies need to conduct more than once.

"If I were to do one end-to-end test and it worked perfectly, I would [still] probably do two or three more," DiPentima said. It is a good idea to test a combination of dates and days during the end-to-end testing process to be sure there are no problems that could crop up on a day other than Jan. 1, 2000, he added.

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