Travel Europe: Only a churl, or Richard Branson, will not welcome BA's economy advances

BUGS ARE the bane of the traveller's life - but an inorganic one could be the most alarming of all. In less than eight weeks' time, travellers could find themselves the first to be bitten by the millennium bug. At their annual get-together in Marbella last weekend, Britain's travel agents (or at least those delegates who could be bothered to return to the conference hall after an exhausting elevenses) were warned that the failure of computers to recognise the year 2000 will give the travel industry the "worst concentration of problems that anyone can possibly have".

That warning came from a member of the Government's Action 2000 team, John Ivinson. He told the Association of British Travel Agents convention that everything from hotel lifts to air traffic control could be affected by computers misbehaving when they see the "00" at the end of the year.

The problem is that the travel industry has "a very high dependency on technology in order to be able to operate in the first place". Worse still: "A large part of their work is sending people overseas, especially to developing countries." And because the so-called booking horizon for many aspects of travel is 12 months - the standard validity for air tickets, for example - the first computer calamities could occur when 1998's New Year's Eve ticks around into 1 January 1999.

Another problem that may come to light, said Mr Ivinson, is the result of an old programming technique: "In the Sixties and Seventies, some programmers used '99 in the year field to indicate the end of a job." Mr Ivinson knows this is true because he was one of those programmers. "I would not have been doing my job properly if I had used the very limited computer capacity in any other way."

British Airways told agents in Marbella it would not fly on any routes over New Year's Eve 1999 where it was unconvinced about safety. On routes to the Far East, for example, aircraft routinely fly over one or more former Soviet republics, and there is concern that air traffic control systems may not be "millennium compliant".

The tour operators are caught in the tricky position of trying to make as much money as possible from something that is, for once, a genuine "once in a lifetime" opportunity, and of not wishing to be held responsible for anything that goes wrong. Sovereign, for instance, promises "the most lavish and extravagant events", but then warns that it cannot accept liability for any disruption beyond its control.

The example Sovereign chooses to illustrate the possible inconvenience is a curious one: "unusual traffic-light sequences, etc". If only it were that simple.

THOSE WHO decide to stay at home and visit the Millennium Dome instead may find tickets scarce. Geoffrey Robinson, operations director for the New Millennium Experience, says that 30m Britons intend to visit the Dome, but adds "I hope they won't, because we won't have room for them." The maximum capacity allowed for at present is around 18m. Tickets for individuals will not go on sale until September, though tour operators can reserve space before then.

Mr Robinson expects some days to be completely sold out. In a bid to deter touts, he says tickets not bought from official vendors will be invalid. "We will retain the right to refuse admission," he tells me, "to anyone who can't prove the ticket from a valid outlet."

ONLY A churl, a business-class passenger, or Richard Branson would not welcome BA's much-needed improvements to the economy section of its long- range planes, known as World Traveller. Enhancements include seat-back videos and natty two-tier meal trays. But not all is innovative.

Henceforth, promises the publicity, you will be able to get a pre-assigned seat - so long as you paid full fare for your trip. This merely partially restores a privilege that was removed from all travellers, irrespective of fare paid, two years ago.

Then there is the chance that people attracted by the changes will buy BA tickets, only to find the plane belongs to one of its many partners. This could be anyone from Canadian Airlines to Qantas, both of which will lag a long way behind in terms of economy-class comfort. (Virgin Atlantic does the same with its tie-ups with Continental and Malaysia Airlines.)

Finally, the improvements will take more than two years to instigate - so in 2001, even if you confirm you are travelling on a long-haul flight operated by BA rather than an impostor, you could find yourself flying in an economy cabin that already looked threadbare in 1998.

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