Travel And The Millennium Bug

4th Feb 1999

What is the Millennium Bug anyway?
If you are in business, you should not need to ask as you ought really to have already been tackling the issue for some time! Basically, computer software designers from the 1960s onwards (when computer memory was limited) have used two digits to represent each year in the 1900s, meaning that some computers will interpret the year 2000 as 100 years earlier, ie 1900. No-one really started thinking that this might be a problem until a few years ago, hence the scramble to de-bug systems before the new Millennium starts.

Why should this cause problems?
Computers, almost unnoticed, have become such an integral part of our lives that they affect every aspect, not just at work. Microprocessor-controlled electrical items in the home may be just as affected as computer systems in the office or factory. Older computerised burglar alarms or central heating systems, for example, may automatically switch off on 1 January, 2000, if they think it is really 1900 and safety and security protocols kick in. The real problem is micro-processors with “embedded date chips” in them which control functions as diverse as automatic doors, lifts, credit card systems and stock control.

Just how serious a problem is it?
The truth is that nobody really knows. The worst-case scenario suggested by some Jeremiahs is for significant civil unrest caused by the failure of electricity and water supplies, along with food shortages. However, there is a strong feeling in some quarters that these are just scare stories to encourage people and organisations to take the issue seriously. But there is obviously potential for a degree of inconvenience at work and at home, if nothing else.

What is the Government doing about it?
Whitehall has faced a bit of struggle in getting the business world interested in the subject at all, even though the issue has been rising up the political agenda for several years now. British Airways Chairman Lord Marshall has even taken part in a series of television commercials with competitors Sir Michael Bishop and Richard Branson to raise awareness of the issue. As part of its campaign, the Government has also set up Action 2000 as an advisory body for companies. Call 0845 601 2000 for a free Action Pack.

How will travel be affected?
The key point to make is that safety is the paramount issue, especially for the airlines. There is absolutely no question that passenger and crew safety will be the overriding factor in determining if and when aircraft fly over the Millennium change-over period. But making the actual aircraft bug-free is not the main problem, as the airlines and manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus Industrie have been working together for some years to ensure that all on board computer systems are Millennium-compliant.


What is the problem then?
Airlines do not operate in isolation and however much work is put in on the aircraft systems themselves, in the end airlines depend on a complex and interlocking infrastructure to operate effectively. Everything can be affected, from computers refusing to open aircraft hangar doors to landing lights not being switched on. Catering may not be in the right place at the right time, or key staff may not be able to get to their positions on the ground. There are some 40,000 suppliers around the world involved in civil aviation, and British Airways` critical path analysis takes in an estimated 3,000 compliance units (computer systems, mainframes and networks, for example), and 20,000 pieces of equipment, ranging from flight training simulators to photocopy machines.

How about the infrastructure?
IATA - the International Air Transport Association - is spending $20 million on an investigation of the airline industry infrastructure worldwide. This includes air traffic control services, airports, suppliers and customs authorities. This investigation will report on the Year 2000 readiness of these entities and will be available to member airlines. British Airways actively supports this project.

What is British Airways doing about it?
British Airways is spending many millions to tackle the “Bug”, setting up a “Year 2000” programme with 100 full-time staff and a firm commitment at all levels to meeting its targets for compliance well ahead of the deadline (which, after all, is rather immutable). The programme, which the British Airways Board of directors also meets to consider every quarter, was initiated in 1995 and consists of five main steps - called Milestones.

What are these?
Basically, the five Milestones are:

* Inventory: establishing a central database of all equipment, systems and suppliers and ranking them in importance of safety and business issues.

* Assessment: assessing every single compliance need and establishing priorities.

* Fix: taking action to ensure every inventory item is made compliant.

* Test: rigorous checking of all important and critical processes.

* Contingency: cover, cover and more cover, with specialists checking systems continuously and with IT specialists employed to be on hand over the Millennium period.

What are British Airways` plans for the Millennium?
British Airways sees the Millennium Bug as a business continuity issue, not only ensuring such matters as that reservations are confirmed as normal, invoices settled promptly, and staff paid on time, but also that passengers are assured they will be able to fly - safely and securely - to destinations on its route network.

When can I make reservations for the Millennium period?
From the middle of last month (January) the global airline reservation systems have been taking bookings for the Millennium, so it is already clear that these systems are coping with reservations for the end of the year and beyond. British Airways is very keen to ensure that its customers can fly when they want to over the period but, realistically, knows that much depends on how others in the system are Millennium compliant. Your travel agent or British Airways reservations adviser will be able to give you up-to-date information at the time of booking, although you should be prepared for some leeway depending on circumstances.

What about hotels, car rental companies and other transport systems?
All the other major suppliers of travel related services are tackling the Bug in their own way and at their own pace, so it is difficult to guarantee what will work and what might not. But they have a vested interest in ensuring their services operate and they earn revenue, so expect most Bug problems to have been ironed out by the end of the year.

What about my Executive Club points?
The membership points and applicable Air Miles will be registered in the normal way as the systems will be Millennium compliant. If in any doubt, just keep a record of flights and check - as you should do with bank and credit card statements in any case as computer systems can make mistakes at the best of times.

Do we really have to call it the Millennium `Bug`?
Not if you don`t want to. In America the issue is known as the Y2K problem.



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