At the eye of the hurricane it is very calm - at the edges there is a lot of wind. So says KLM, predicting that New Year's day 2000 is likely to be calmer than the frenetic build-up may suggest. There is optimism elsewhere that aviation will indeed be ready for the new millennium, even if some passengers need a little more convincing.

Early year 2000 (Y2K) trigger dates have already passed without incident. On 4 February computer reservation systems started taking booking for 31 December, which reportedly went without a hitch. So did 9 April, which was forecast to trigger the code 9999 because it was the 99th day of the 99th year.

More critical moments are to come before the end of the year. The next date to watch is the global positioning system (GPS) roll-over on 21 August - the day when the GPS reaches the end of its 1,024-week clock. This is followed by 9 September, when some codes may register 9999, and then there is 29 December, when airports will start loading flight schedules into their flight time display systems for 31 December. There are critical dates beyond the New Year because, say information technology experts, the millennium bug will only be neutralised on 1 January 2001.

The lack of reported problems and the largely anecdotal evidence appears to vindicate claims that the largest airlines, airports and air traffic management systems are on target to beat the bug.

According to the joint survey conducted by Airline Business and SITA among the world's 150 airlines, only around one-third of carriers had already achieved "full compliance" by the end of June. But that number was to due rise to 81% by September, when projects were expected to begin to draw to a close. Jonathan Howe, director general of Airports Council International (ACI), adds that the majority of the world's main airports are now millennium compliant, at least up to the perimeter fence.

Most of the industry claims to be nearing completion of compliance, while airlines, airports and air traffic controllers are devoting most of their efforts to developing effective contingency - or business continuity - programmes that will be essential to cope with expected disruptions from links to the wider world.

What the industry is desperate to make loud and clear is that safety will not be compromised. Its task at convincing would-be travellers was helped by the completion of remedial and testing work by major aircraft manufacturers. In April, Boeing terminated six years of adjustments and testing, declaring its aircraft "Y2000-ready". Airbus has made similar assurances.

Some airlines, such as Continental Airlines, have carried out their own flight tests, but many carriers have dispensed with "that extra level of comfort", says Tom Browne, head of the Y2K programme of the Air Transport Association (ATA). "Some airlines take the view that they do not need to go through the process themselves."

Global alliances are also checking their own fleets thoroughly. In a joint statement, the Star Alliance airlines affirm that "no Year 2000 airline-related issues have been identified that could compromise the safety or operation of aircraft used by Star carriers."

Most airlines in Europe and the USA are working towards July for final verification of their internal systems and some critical interfaces with their main business partners and suppliers.

North American airlines, which have spent over $750 million on the Y2K problem, announced on 1 July that they were 95% finished with remedial efforts. In a status report to the US Department of Transportation, they stated that testing will continue throughout the year. In Europe too, the likes of British Airways or Air France had targeted mid-year compliance and are now looking to test the effectiveness of their contingency plans over the next couple of months.

Alliance partners are meanwhile integrating their systems to Y2K-proof standards. The Star Alliance claims that "linkages between the carriers' information systems have been subjected to integrated tests, and passed." As for the wider aviation infrastructure, airlines have been carrying out their own checks and working closely with their hub airports and national air traffic systems. But the task of co-ordinating compliance globally has fallen to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the ATA and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), working with the relevant agencies and representative bodies. "IATA has access to countries that an individual airline, however big and powerful, would find difficult to build and maintain communication link," points out Peter Cooke, Y2K project manager at BA, who is also the chairman of IATA's Y2K steering group.

IATA and ICAO have set up regional offices to oversee compliance and develop regional contingency plans. In conjunction with PriceWaterhouse Coopers, IATA has been building a giant database. In April it completed site visits to the world's 72 largest international airports. By July, it was to have collected data on more than 500 international airports outside the USA, including 330 medium and smaller airports. It has also visited over 100 air traffic systems providers and claims to have covered 123 states. In addition, it has broadened the scope of its audit to over 60 cargo customs authorities, including three-quarters of the largest national authorities.

ATA, meanwhile, is conducting a similar audit of North American airports and air traffic systems and has visited the biggest 173 airports in the USA and Canada. The ATA and IATA appear to be pleased with progress.

"We have much more optimism about the ability of the industry not just to weather Y2K but to fly through it with minimal inconvenience and disruption," says Thomas Windmuller, director of IATA's Year 2000 Project. "We are focusing a lot more on potential bottlenecks, problems related to insufficient resources and providing extra technical assistance where necessary," he adds.

To help Windmuller along the way, IATA, which has spent $19.7 million on the compliance project, is to donate $8.67 million more. This will promote efforts to take the battle against the millennium bug beyond the New Year.

Contingency plans

IATA is also keen for the industry to focus more narrowly on contingency programmes.

Although IATA and the ATA will be providing "basic guidelines" to their members and the rest of the industry, it will be up to individual entities to elaborate their own fall-back plans.

Measures include ensuring enough staff, especially key technical support, are available over the New Year. BA is offering financial incentives to boost staff numbers, while IT provider SITA has banned holidays between mid-December and early January.

Another priority is checking international communication links between air traffic control centres.

Making ends meet

Having successfully completed a live test of the US air traffic management system in April, the Federal Aviation Administration is "certain that it will be safe", it says. It is considering live international end-to-end ATC tests. These are said to include the six countries handling the majority of the traffic entering and leaving the USA - the Bahamas, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Japan, Norway and the USA.

US airlines are keen for this to be done, although they admit that time and resources may not allow for live tests of the thinnest routes. "Just because a test is not done it does not mean the system will not be compliant," says the ATA's Tom Browne.

In western Europe, ATCs are carrying out their own internal tests as well as testing communication links among themselves, says Jurgen Blume, Y2K manager of Eurocontrol, Europe's fledgling ATC organisation. "To our knowledge, every European ATC system is compliant," he says.

Blume is working with ICAO to establish a cell, to be based at Eurocontrol's central flow management unit in Brussels, which aims "to rapidly identify failures throughout the region and coordinate appropriate action" for the year 2000 date change. The effectiveness of this cell will tested in October.

As for Asia, the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) is confident that end-to end testing will occur between "states which share borders", says Carlos Chua, commercial director.

Despite optimism about progress towards beating the millennium bug, there is little publicly available information on progress - and therefore no antidote to the continuous flow of scare stories predicting disaster over the New Year.

There has been no update on the status of US airports, for example. According to a General Accounting Office report published in January, these were largely unprepared. It said that only one third believed they would meet the FAA's 30 June deadline for implementation of Y2K compliance and reported they did not have contingency plans.

The last published Y2K compliance data from IATA was released in 1997, based on information collected in 1996. IATA and the ATA say they cannot release any details from their databases until after 1 January, 2000 because confidentiality was crucial to getting maximum co-operation. This has reportedly caused friction between the industry and governments. IATA was said to have assembled a "blacklist" of the compliance laggards and the UK and US transport departments, among other national government agencies, are said to have requested access and been refused.

IATA denies the existence of a blacklist, but recognises that it needs to boost external confidence in its programme. "We are looking at ways of making the updating process a joint exercise of ICAO and IATA, so the issue of confidence goes away," says Peter Cooke.

Confidential compliance data could become public knowledge anyway. ICAO was to have received compliance reports for all its member states by 1 July and a database containing this information was to be "up and running" in July, according to ICAO spokesman Denis Changnon. "States will be asked to share aeronautical information," he says. Although access to the database will be password protected, the US Freedom of Information Act is likely put paid to attempts to keep the information secret.

ICAO has some indication of what the state of compliance is worldwide. It appears that some parts of the world, unless they get moving, may need "contingency" plans, not only as back-up, but as the first and only line of defence against the millennium bug. The organisation has been monitoring Y2K status worldwide through the Informal Global Y2K Co-ordination Action Group, set up last year with IATA, the ATA, ACI and individual airlines and national civil aviation authorities.

Regional disparity

According to an ICAO report based on information supplied by Y2K regional offices, the industry has made "considerable progress" on diminishing the threat of the millennium bug over the past six months. North America "is confident that preparations [for Y2K compliance] are nearing completion", says the report, while in Europe "the working assumptions were-made that normal flight operations would be possible" and safety-related elements of airports would also be compliant.

Hinting at problems in eastern Europe, however, ICAO refers to the need of addressing the "specific needs" of the region.

Worse, in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, contingency plans are being formulated "on the assumption that significant degradation of services may occur along major traffic flows". While in western and Central Africa, ICAO notes that "it is difficult to evaluate the potential impact of Y2K-and to determine the extent to which states are prepared to deal with Y2K" because of "the low response rates to ICAO and other surveys and questionnaires".

Funding does not appear to be the problem. The World Bank has stepped in to help to cover funding shortfalls for airlines, airports or air traffic services and, according to ICAO, it has provided assistance to 13 states in the Caribbean. Nor are the compliance laggards confined to the developing world, or the nations of the former Eastern Bloc.

Jean Cremet, Y2K project manager at Air France, says that biggest question marks hang over elements of the aviation industries in Africa, Asia, South America, eastern Europe and the CIS, but not exclusively. Some smaller French airports have failed to submit information to IATA, he says, adding that in general, the problem areas are small airports, which have a limited amount of technology and automation. Still, Air France "not have all the information that we thought we would have had when the [IATA] study started," says Cremet.

Dutch carrier KLM, meanwhile, is adamant that there is "a lack of reality in some circles" about the Y2K problem. "We are trying to signal to the market that things could go wrong," says the airline. It says the company cannot rule out measures such as "reduced capacity" and "far bigger separations" where "ATCs are not running properly". To avoid the possible problems, KLM may "focus on extra capacity before Christmas and after the millennium change."

KLM's views are shared by the FAA, which oversees ATC in a country which appears to be at the forefront of compliance. "There may well be delays," it says. "One analogy is that it could be like a major storm in the USA, which is something that we deal with regularly."

According to Mark Darby, head of aviation consulting at Deloitte & Touche, "any ATC systems that are in countries which have been historically underfunded are at risk". An advisor to leading airport operators on managing the Y2K issue, Darby believes that even airports that have been "ahead of the game still have bits and pieces that are not compliant.

"Chep Lap Kok is a lesson as to what might happen on the millennium changeover," he says, referring to the chaotic opening of the new Hong Kong Airport last year. "Despite all the planning and testing, there is scope for failure," he says, pointing to air bridges, baggage systems, cargo and security, as automated processes at airports that are at risk. Darby argues that multiple failures could "swamp an organisation". Where management of such a situation is inadequate and the extra manpower implicit in falling back on manual operations is not available, a problem that should be contained to "a day or so" could "run on for a long while", he says.

The AAPA is confident, however, that multiple failures of the scale of Hong Kong will not occur simultaneously across the globe. Chua argues that there were national politicking at stake in Hong Kong. He contrasts the process of building Asia's largest hub with the openness and spirit of international co-operation employed by the industry in the war against the millennium bug. Caution remains

What is clear is that there is sufficient doubt as to the industry's preparedness that no carrier is willing to make a cast iron guarantee that it will fly on the night of 31 December.

Nevertheless, some are willing to stick their neck out. Jane Garvey, the FAA chief administrator, has announced that she will fly on New Year's eve, although perhaps wisely, she is confining her journey to a US domestic route. It seems Garvey will be one of the few to fly that night. Although some airlines report that some flights will be full, they are exceptional.

Anyone who does fly may be without insurance cover. Although illness or stolen baggage linked to the millennium bug will be covered, the Association of British Insurers says that if an airline is hit by technical difficulties and has to postpone a flight, a passenger will not be able to claim travel insurance for the resulting delay. In addition, policies will not cover claims by passengers who have decided to cancel a trip because of worries over date-related failures.

It is unclear whether airlines will be covered over the millennium changeover period. BA's Cooke says there will be exclusions for losses incurred over the crucial date, but adds that the airline "is confident that we will be fully covered". What is clear, however, is that, Cooke and his counterparts in the rest of the airline industry, will work flat out in preparation for 31 December. But unlike most, they hope their New Year 1999 will be uneventful.

Source: Airline Business