GCN INTERVIEW: Ray Long, FAA's year 2000 pilot

Long said he loves challenges and was
delighted to take the promotion after managing the year 2000 effort for the Federal
Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Services.

After a year in college, Long shipped out to Vietnam where he served as an air traffic
controller in the Army. He started his government career 18 years ago at FAA after
attending, in his words, the “school of hard knocks, where I earned a Ph.D.”

Although FAA’s code work got off to a late start, which Long attributes to
agencywide denial, the work now seems to be on track and there will be no interruption in
the nation’s air traffic, he said.

GCN associate editor John Breeden II talked with Long at FAA headquarters in

GCN: When you were named
director of the Federal Aviation Administration year 2000 program, what were you told your
goals would be?

LONG: My marching orders were very simple: Make sure that every one of the FAA’s
computer systems properly recognizes the year 2000.

GCN: How many FAA systems could begin to
experience problems in 2000?

LONG: If everything goes according to schedule and we’re right on target, none of
our systems will experience problems on Jan. 1, 2000.

We have identified 222 mission-critical systems within Air Traffic Services, and by
mission-critical we mean that their operation directly affects the operation of the
nation’s airspace system. Of the 222, 131 are already certified as Y2K-compliant.
That leaves 68 with lines of code that need to be fixed to recognize the year 2000

GCN: What does FAA define as a system?

LONG: The proper word to use is actually environment. For example, when we talk about
the host, which is the IBM 3083 mainframe that drives the displays that controllers
monitor at the 20 en route centers nationwide, we’re actually talking about the host
environment. It includes all the peripheral systems necessary to run the host.

GCN: When will all critical FAA computer
systems become year 2000-ready?

LONG: All lines of code will be fixed or renovated by Sept. 30, the date by which the
Office of Management and Budget and the General Accounting Office said all federal systems
must be fixed.

After that, all renovated systems will be tested and retested during what is called the
validation phase. This will be completed by March 31, 1999. All FAA systems will be
certified as Y2K-compliant by June 30, 1999.

GCN: Is that a firm date?

LONG: All Y2K milestone dates are firm. Jan. 1, 2000, is a firm date, and so our Y2K
milestone dates are firm as well.

GCN: Will there be any noncritical systems
that are not fixed in time?

LONG: All systems will be fixed on time, both mission-critical and
non-mission-critical. We have a total of 655 systems; 430 are mission-critical and 225 are
not. They all fall under the same timeline.

GCN: What is the total cost going to be?

LONG: Our estimated cost for the entire program is $191.8 million.

GCN: Is the money already budgeted and

LONG: Not for fiscal 1999 and 2000. We’re going to need approximately $53 million
for fiscal 1999 and $9.5 million for fiscal 2000. We don’t anticipate having to shift
money from any other programs.

GCN: How will FAA test the fixed systems,
particularly the ones used each day to control aircraft, to ensure they are year
2000-ready once your programmers tell you they are fixed?

LONG: It all depends on the fix that was used. For example, one fix may be a software
patch that is integrated into the next software upgrade. In that case, we would test the
entire upgrade to make sure the fix is incorporated correctly.

Each system will then be tested independently. After that, we’ll do what’s
called end-to-end testing, where we test the connections between systems to make sure
they’re speaking to each other the way they should.

This is very important, as the nation’s airspace system is not made up of systems
that stand alone but is an intricate network of systems that communicate with each other
in many different ways.

GCN: One criticism coming from the frontline
FAA employees working on the year 2000 problem is that they don’t have enough contact
with top managers who direct agency resources. Since you took over the program, have you
worked out a solution to this?

LONG: Yes. The reason is simply that the FAA Y2K Program Office is structured
differently from any other organization within the FAA. I report directly to Jane Garvey,
the FAA administrator, and when it comes to Y2K matters, all FAA employees report directly
to me.

The layers of bureaucracy have been removed. If I need to speak to an employee, I
don’t have to clear anything with his or her boss—I go directly to the employee.
This is an important structural distinction. The nature of the Y2K effort requires that we
be able to move on a dime.

GCN: What are your contingency plans if the year 2000
program is not completed, or if fixed systems begin to produce errors? Could commercial
flights be canceled or restricted?

LONG: In the first place, the FAA’s program will be completed. We have a firm plan
in place, we have all the resources to get it done, and we’re right on schedule to do

That said, we have a contingency plan in place for each individual system within the
nation’s airspace system. This is not a compromise but a continuation of the
philosophy that underlies the operation of the air traffic control system.

That philosophy simply states that everything has a backup. It is a system based on
redundancies, and Y2K is no different. The bottom line is that safety of flight will not
be compromised.

We are not expecting any flights, commercial or otherwise, to be canceled or
restricted. There is always that possibility, just as there is always the possibility of
cancellation due to severe storms, but we are not expecting it to happen.


GCN: How likely is it to happen? Could it be
a precautionary measure even if all systems are made compliant?

LONG: Not likely at all. We will know, through testing and retesting, whether the fixes
are good. By June 30, 1999, all FAA systems will be certified as Y2K-compliant, so
precautionary measures will be moot.

GCN: How helpful have your hardware and
software vendors been in working on the year 2000 problem?

LONG: The vendor community has been very helpful when we’ve needed their help. I
must point out, though, that the FAA is unique in that the people who are working on the
problem, the technicians fixing the lines of code, are the same people who have been
working on those same systems for years and years.

We have been extremely fortunate in that regard.

GCN: FAA has not gotten much favorable
publicity for its year 2000 efforts. Does it bother you that people don’t believe the
fixes will be completed in time?

LONG: Not at all. I should point out that some of the criticism has been justified. We
have always freely admitted that we got a late start, which I attributed to institutional
denial. But since then we’ve been working like crazy.

We assessed all our programs by Jan. 31, set up our program office Feb. 4 and are
halfway through renovating our systems. We’ve made up most lost ground, and by the
end we’ll have made up all of it.

I’ve always liked challenges. I like it that some people don’t believe the
fixes will be completed in time, because that will make it all the sweeter when we

I don’t say this out of arrogance or to sound boastful. It’s a reflection of
the confidence I have in our team.

GCN: Are you aware that airlines won’t
accept reservations for that date or beyond?

LONG: The airlines not only are aware of the problem, each U.S. carrier has a Y2K plan
in place.

We are working in close concert with the Air Transport Association, which represents
most of the U.S. airlines.

In fact, the FAA and ATA jointly sponsored a Y2K industry day June 23, so we could tell
them where we are, and they could tell us where they are.

The bottom line for the airlines is that they need to know our systems will be ready
and they won’t lose any money. They have a vested interest in our success. We will
not let them down.

GCN: Where will you be on Jan. 1, 2000?

LONG: That’s a great question. I’ll be on a plane with Jane [Garvey].
We’re going to board a flight on the East Coast shortly before midnight Dec. 31,
taking into account Greenwich Mean Time, and we’ll fly west through all four
continental time zones. I expect it to be a routine and deeply satisfying flight.  

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