No need for fear of Y2K flying

Flights: Computer experts say you won't have to ground your plans to be in the air when the new year arrives.

April 18, 1999|By Andy Dworkin

DALLAS -- Many Americans plan to travel into the new millennium by staying home. Inflated fares and full flights aren't keeping them from exotic excursions. Fear of the Year 2000 computer glitch, and its effect on flights, is the hang-up.

Take Mikal Johnson. A travel agent who relies on safe air travel for his daily bread, he's taking no chances Jan. 1.

"Just about everything in an airplane is run by a computer, and those are the things that are going to be affected the most," said the owner of Mr. Ticket Travel in Cedar Hill, Texas. "I certainly wouldn't want to be in the air myself, unless I was sure" it would be safe.

The people who make and operate aircraft call such views common, vexing and wrong.

"I feel like somebody has stuck a knife in my side every time I read articles about planes falling out of the sky," said Matt Cordner, who oversees Year 2000 efforts at Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter Textron Inc.

Airlines and aerospace firms are spending billions to make sure their computers work come 2000. Industry experts are sure no safety problems will occur. Though they say air-travel hitches are possible, they would be small ones that cause delays, such as mix-ups in baggage claim systems. If some systems do cut out, critical systems have backups.

"If something doesn't work today, a flight gets delayed or canceled. We're not going to change the way we operate on Jan. 1, 2000," said Tom Browne, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association. The trade group of U.S. airlines is running a $16 million campaign to publicize its campaign for Year 2000 safety. "We're certainly not going to have the Armageddon that some people are predicting."

According to a recent Gallup poll, 54 percent of Americans won't take to the skies around Jan. 1, up from 47 percent in a December poll. And 43 percent of respondents feared that air traffic control systems would fail.

Arlington, Texas, travel agent Paul Whitnah said one of his clients canceled a regular New Year's trip to Disney World because of fear of the problem. Richardson agent Marla Howard said a radio station that regularly books promotional tours decided against running a New Year's trip.

The planners of the Detroit Auto Show, the car industry's most important annual meeting, rescheduled the 2000 show from Jan. 3 to Jan. 10 after "many people expressed anxiety about traveling over the holiday weekend," said show spokeswoman Sharon Kelsey.

The fear is of computer systems that record the year with a two-digit code, such as "99" for "1999." When 2000 arrives, the codes will read "00," confounding many computer systems, which could fail.

Costly repairs

So aerospace firms have spent years identifying which of their computer systems have date problems and fixing or replacing them. All of this is costly: U.S. airlines will spend more than $2 billion on the repairs.

The main result of this work is that aircraft should operate safely when 2000 arrives, the industry maintains.

Seattle-based Boeing Co., the world's biggest jet builder, found "absolutely no safety-of-flight or operations" concerns, spokeswoman Mary Jean Olsen said.

Only three pieces of equipment on some models of Boeing craft are affected, and those are not crucial. If not fixed, they'll be nuisances for pilots but not dangerous, the company said.

Most systems on even highly computerized jets don't have date problems. At Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Fort Worth fighter plant, for example, engineers identified more than 3,000 systems involved in F-16 flight.

But "to date, we have found no safety-of-flight issues," said Jack Guthrie, who coordinates the plant's Year 2000 efforts. He said many of the systems "are not sensitive to dates and years."

Helicopters have fewer date-sensitive systems than jet planes, and Bell officials "have yet to find any date-related issue," Cordner said.

Airline and airport officials say they're confident that all crucial systems will work in 2000. Programs to replace affected systems at Love Field and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport should be completed before the new year arrives. In addition, there are contingency plans for any glitches.

Christine Turneabee-Connelly, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, said the Dallas-based carrier's $20 million Year 2000 program should fix all critical systems by summer.

"The only problem for the customer, if something does arise, will be something like a weather delay" in terms of its inconvenience, she said in a comment echoed by officials at other airlines and at airports.

Fort Worth-based AMR Corp., owner of American Airlines and the Sabre reservations system, is spending up to $250 million on its Year 2000 fixes. The Sabre system passed its test and has been taking reservations for travel in 2000 since Feb. 4. As for the airline, "American is very confident in its own systems, that they will work on Jan. 1," said spokesman John Hotard.

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