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The Status of Y2K Travel

The Status of Y2K Travel
by Rudy Maxa for Marketplace

The problem isn't too many travelers--it's too few. American Airlines, Northwest, KLM, Air Canada and others have announced reduced or canceled flight schedules over New Year's weekend not because they're afraid their computers won't work. It's that no one wants to travel. Virgin Atlantic is halting all flights so its employees can celebrate, said the airline's owner, Richard Branson, who's been known to like a good party himself now and then.

The airlines says travel is still strong over the holidays, but they've never seen such a sharp decline in demand for seats between December 30th and the second day of the new year. Part of that drop-off can surely be blamed on computer bug fears, even though most major airlines expect no problems. To demonstrate her faith in the system, FAA administrator Jane Garvey will fly an American flight late on New Year's Eve.

Meanwhile, how are the world's computers doing when it comes to travel? Well, the first reports are beginning to trickle in. Last week, the State Department said no country's Y2K problems were severe enough to issue a travel warning aimed at discouraging Americans to visit. But the agency did publish 196 country-by-country advisories on its Internet site, and some reviews weren't exactly boffo. Anyone traveling to Belarus, for example, should defer their trip or--and here I quote--"be prepared to withstand power, water and heat outages during cold winter weather that could last several days or more." There were other warnings for Russia and nearby Ukraine, where energy and electrical services could be disrupted. Cell phones in Israel might not work, said Uncle Sam, and in Taiwan, all ATM machines will shut down for 36 hours beginning early on December 31st.

At the Airport

These warnings are political dynamite--Washington has to be careful not to offend other countries. But overall, Western Europe and North America appear the best prepared, while other parts of the world face problems in their electrical and telecommunications sectors.

But watch for more specific warnings as we get closer to New Year's. The Department of Transportation says it still doesn't have enough info from 17 international destinations with direct links to the U.S. to make an evaluation of computer readiness. Those include several Caribbean destinations such as the Turks and Caicos and Aruba as well as the Czech Republic and Uruguay.

My advice? If you can avoid travel when the calendar turns, do so. Goldman Sachs, for example, advised its employees against travel after December 30th. And get a paper ticket--it's much more difficult with an electronic ticket to switch flights if there are delays. And if you can find out what plane FAA chief Garvey is on, you can bet that's one flight that will take off and land on time.

The Savvy Traveler on Marketplace

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