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2000 reasons not to fly on New Year's Eve

People afraid to fly aren't any calmer knowing that airline scheduling systems and control tower software are also at risk when the year strikes "00."

Software analysts in the millennium bug business fly all over the world trying to prepare for what some have called "technological Armageddon," but a good many of them will be having a quiet night at home on New Year's Eve 1999--especially those close to the airline business.

The bug has given just about everyone a stomach ache, but people afraid to fly aren't any calmer with the knowledge that airline scheduling systems and control tower software are also at risk when the year strikes "00" and estimated flight and arrival times may be thrown off by hours.

"I certainly won't be flying New Year's Eve," said one software analyst who is working closely with a major European airline to address the problem. She added that she would be taking money out of the bank a few days before the millennium in case the ATMs aren't working.

Dr, Antonio Pizzarello, cofounder of Peritus Software Services, a Massachusetts consulting firm which focuses, in part, on the Y2K problem, is also concerned about possible problems with scheduling and navigational equipment. "I think pilots will be looking out the window the old fashioned way for a few days before and a few days after New Year's Eve, and they might even take the software offline for a short period," he said.

Pizzarello anticipates something less than smooth flying, despite assurances from NASA, the FAA, and the Air Transport Association that control tower systems will be ready in time. The biggest problem for control tower operators, he explains, is that tower software systems stamp arrival and departure times with not only hours, minutes, and seconds, but also the date, to account for changes which can occur as flights cross time zones and the international dateline. This means that tower software will expect a flight stamped with the date "00" to arrive before another preceding flight stamped with "99".

Onboard navigational systems may also be affected by the Y2K bug, according to a Boeing representative. "Navigational systems use the date signature for a number of reasons, and the switch [to "00"] could cause errors to occur." Boeing said, however, that none of the affected systems represented a safety threat and that all of their aircraft delivered since 1995 are Y2K ready.

Still, the combination of anticipated scheduling and navigational problems has some airlines saying they may not fly on New Year's Eve, and others saying very little at all.

"The Year 2000 issue represents a serious problem, and, as always, if flying poses a real safety threat then we won't do it," said a representative from Northwest Airlines/KLM, in response to rumors circulating that they have considered cutting back service that evening and the following day. Northwest said it is also concerned about possible problems around the world in airports which have not been quick to seek a solution.

Trans World Airlines declined to comment, pointing instead to a press release which said that they hoped to have completed the necessary changes by mid-1999, but could offer "no assurance that these estimates will be achieved."

Even if planes aren't crashing left and right on New Year's Eve, many analysts say not to expect business as usual. NASA and the FAA may have orchestrated software repairs on a national level, but airlines have been less cooperative in their approach to a solution for their systems which often schedule flights and code-shares with one another.

"Unless the issue is addressed in a similar manner by all the airlines, which does not seem to be happening, we can expect problems with the scheduling systems trying to interface with one another...which could mean delays at the very least," Pizzarello said.

Others are more optimistic: "Will I be taking a little money out of the bank in case the ATMs aren't working? Sure, " said a United Airlines spokesperson. "But I'm certainly not worried about flying around New Year's. That's silly."

Steve Brody is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Wired News, as well as a variety of electronics trade publications. He is a graduate of Reed College in Portland, Oregon.