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TRAVEL WATCH: DECEMBER 6, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 22

Who's Afraid of the Millennium Bug?
By PAYAL KAPADIA


Illustration for TIME by Sara Fanelli

If you plan to be airborne as the millennium rolls in, here's the good news: your plane isn't going to drop out of the sky. The aviation industry has gone to some lengths to fix the Y2K bug and keep us all aloft. Now for the bad news: once the wheels hit the ground, you could be in for serious hassles--lost baggage, delayed connections and many other non-fatal nuisances.

The Y2K bug began to bite into travelers' plans as early as October, when airlines started canceling flights. Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines dropped 129 millennium-straddling flights from a schedule of 994, citing lack of demand. United Airlines canceled 15 of its two dozen Y2K flights to and from Japan, also because of a shortfall of customers. Decreased demand was ascribed to the likelihood that most people want to be on the ground celebrating the new century instead of aloft complaining about lack of legroom. Some travelers are also frightened, no doubt, by the uncertainty that surrounds Y2K. The Japan Travel Bureau, the country's largest travel agency, announced in July that it wouldn't be selling tours that included Dec. 31 flights because of fears of technical problems.

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If you do find yourself at 10,000 m when the clock ticks over, what can you expect? Not much, according to the experts. "Y2K is an inconvenience issue, not a safety issue," says Sean Debow, associate director of Warburg Dillon Read in Hong Kong, who conducted a Y2K-readiness survey of nearly 500 companies in Asia. Boeing and Airbus, the world's two largest aircraft manufacturers, vouch for the preparedness of their aircraft. Pilots, too, sound sure of their planes. "I wouldn't be flying if I thought it was unsafe," says a Cathay Pacific pilot who says he will be in the cockpit on the big night.

Experts predict Y2K will lead to delays on the ground at some airports and may cause flights to be diverted from certain destinations that are less Y2K-ready. "It's the airports that have a question mark," says Jim Eckes, managing director of Indoswiss Aviation. He and other analysts will closely watch air corridors served by older air-traffic control systems--for example, those in the Philippines, Pakistan, India, Russia and parts of Eastern Europe. Some airlines, such as Royal Jordanian, have canceled flights into New Delhi and Karachi to avoid the possibility of problems in those cities.

But even if antiquated air-traffic control systems do fail, pilots can still communicate with control towers by satellite phones and high-frequency radios. Pilots are trained to fly "blind" (without the help of radar), charting their course the way early aviators did. To be on the safe side, the aviation industry has agreed to increase the distance between aircraft flying on the same course that day, from the standard 10 minutes to 15 minutes. The flurry of flight cancellations will reduce the number of planes in the air anyway, making the situation easier to manage.

Major airports in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei are reporting 100% Y2K readiness, but even they are hedging their bets. Authorities at Hong Kong International Airport say that travelers might experience delays and baggage mix-ups. If a glitch occurs in Chek Lap Kok's automated baggage system--which handles as many as 88,000 bags a day--much of the job will have to be done by hand, and serious logjams could occur. So if you plan to fly on Dec. 31, build some flexibility into your itinerary, and expect long delays. It's also a good idea to check with your carrier for scheduling changes and travel with just carry-on luggage if you can get away with it. There's no need to bring a parachute, but a good book will probably help.

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