Three of every five major airlines, railroads and shipping companies have not even figured out yet how big their "year 2000" computer problems are - let alone managed to fix them.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, released that finding Thursday from a survey by the Special Senate Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, which he chairs.It asked 32 major transportation companies simple questions about their year 2000 problem activities. Despite numerous calls back, only 16 responded - which Bennett says shows the rest may be "embarrassed over their lack of progress."
Among those that did respond, 62 percent said they have not even finished an assessment of their year 2000 problem - a step experts say should have happened by June 1997 to ensure repairs before Jan. 1, 2000.
"I am concerned that the transportation sector as a whole may not be able to transition through the millennium without major disruptions," Bennett told a hearing.
The year 2000 problem comes because older computer programs and chips store only two digits of the four-digit year. So when the year 2000 comes, the "00" will be interpreted as 1900, not 2000 - possibly causing computer crashes or malfunctions.
"If tomorrow were the year 2000, the airline industry would not be ready," Bennett said, giving one example that the data suggest.
While that may not mean airplanes would crash, "Critical systems such as aircraft maintenance and passenger ticketing and reservation systems could fail and cause reduced capacity, flight delays, cancellations and customer discord," Bennett said.
Additionally, he said,"Airport runway lighting systems, fire fighting equipment, building and jetway security systems, parking systems, or even the Texas pipeline that supplies jet fuel to the eastern seaboard could cause closure of some of our busiest airports if year 2000 problems are not aggressively addressed."
Bennett said the data also suggest trucking companies, ships, mass transit systems and even traffic light systems might face serious disruptions unless quick action is taken.
But government agencies and some transportation companies testified they will be ready in time.
For example, Federal Aviation Administrator Jane Garvey committed "that aviation safety will not be compromised on Jan. 1, 2000 or any other day" - and her agency is working to ensure such things as air traffic control systems are year 2000 compliant.
Charles Feld, chief information officer for Delta Airlines, said Delta is working to become year 2000 compliant as quickly as possible. "There can be no assurances, however, that the company's internal systems and equipment or those of third parties on which Delta relies will be Y2K compliant by year 2000."
Joyce Wrenn, vice president of Union Pacific railroad, also said, "We are committed to making Jan. 1, 2000 just another day."