Sunday, January 10, 1999

Airport's Y2K cost: $6.4 million

All computers getting a check

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HEBRON — It probably wouldn't surprise most travelers that computer technology plays a huge role at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

        Computers and computer chips help air-traffic controllers track planes, are major components in an jet's navigational devices and guide luggage through an underground maze of conveyors and lifts.

        Computer technology also turns on the airfield lights, adjusts the temperature in the terminal, runs escalators and controls sprinkler and water systems.

        So airport officials and the airlines are spending millions to make sure the so-called Y2K computer bug doesn't throw any major glitches into air travel when 1999 rolls into 2000.

        “There really isn't much out here at the airport that in some way is not affected or operated by a computer system,” said Rita Wetterstroem, director of human resources for the Kenton County Airport Board, which is spending $6.4 million assessing and correcting the airport's Y2K problem.

        “We've been working on this since 1997,” said Ms. Wetterstroem, who is program director for the board's Year 2000 project. “We have not completed all our work but we have approached it in a

        very systematic way and are optimistic we'll have the airport operational without any major glitches.”

        Delta Air Lines operates its Midwest hub at the airport and is spending up to $170 million to deal with Y2K corporation-wide, said spokesman Kip Smith. The airline has not said how much is being spent at the Cincinnati airport.

        But Mr. Smith said every aspect of the airline's operation is being checked and corrected, including flight and fueling operations, reservations, maintenance and the more than 500 jets it owns.

        “Due to our planning and because of the work we've done, our customers should never even know the difference,” Mr. Smith said. “We plan to operate absolutely normally up to and through Jan. 1, 2000.”

        Likewise, Comair — which has its headquarters and major hub at the airport — is preparing for Y2K by spending about $3 million, according to information the airline recently supplied to federal regulators.

        Comair has hired a consultant specializing in aviation technology to put together its Y2K plan and thinks it won't experience any problems, according to the filing.

        The Y2K, or Year 2000, bug is a reference to the inability of many computers and computer systems to read the year 2000. Because technology from the first computers used more than 50 years ago was never updated to interpret all dates, technology experts and computer programmers have been finding that some computers read 2000 as 1900.

        But Delta is finding very few computer components that are date-sensitive, Mr. Smith said.

        The cost for the airlines and the airport is not necessarily buying new computer software or replacing or modifying existing systems, though that certainly is taking place.

        The real expense is checking every aspect of their operations to make sure a Y2K problem does not exist, said Judy Rawe, the Kenton County Airport Board's information systems manager and the Year 2000 project manager.

        “You don't have to necessarily fix everything you check,” she said, “but you want to make darn sure you check everything.”

        The airlines and the airport have been working closely with their vendors on Y2K checks and repairs, Ms. Rawe said.

        It's a tough task for the airport board, Ms. Wetterstroem said.

        “We have 57 computer systems we are looking at here, but only 12 are what you would consider common items, like a desktop personal computer,” she said.

        “The rest are things like radio-controlled sensors that turn on the airfield lights, or sensors that run the furnaces,” Ms. Wetterstroem said.

        Joe Feiertag, an airport spokesman, said the board also has contingency plans in case something does go wrong.

        “If the airfield lights don't go on because of a computer problem, we'll turn them on manually,” he said.

        One of the airport's biggest concerns is just making sure passengers find convenience when they arrive for a flight.

        “We want to make sure the escalators work,” she said, “and when they want a cup of coffee or some lunch that the cash register works.”

        But safety is most important, Ms. Wetterstroem added.

        “It's snowing this week and we need our big plows to clear the runways,” she said. “Those are huge, sophisticated pieces of equipment and we want to make sure they are working as well as everything else around here on Jan. 1.”


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