Never mind bugs, who wants to see in 2000 in a plane? By Simon Calder
THIS WEEK British Airways flew a group of journalists from London to Nice and set the on-board clocks to just before midnight on 31 December 1999. Champagne corks popped as the make-believe midnight came and went without incident, and independent experts gave the flight the thumbs-up. The world's leading airlines are feeling increasingly confident about the integrity of their operations around the Millennium. But how optimistic are they about the money that is to be made? The Independent has been talking to many of them to get a picture of how the travel world will look at the end of the year.

In any year, Christmas and New Year is peak travel time, when fares rise and seats are hard to find. BA says it is expecting a bonanza, with bookings up 150 per cent on the usual Christmas-New Year levels. But other airlines are less certain. BA's alliance partner, American Airlines, reports only a six per cent rise in bookings for December and the first half of January.

Prominent among the many candidates for "first sunrise of the new Millennium", New Zealand might be expected to be putting up the "full house" signs. Yet although bookings are busier than usual - especially after 17 December - the national airline still has room on flights to Auckland over the Millennium. Fares on Air New Zealand have risen to pounds 1,685 return for the last three weeks of December, a 20 per cent increase on a year earlier.

No definite decision has been taken on whether Air New Zealand will be flying, though all its seven partner airlines in the Star Alliance - including Lufthansa, United Airlines, Thai International and SAS - have declared that they will be running flights normally at midnight on New Year's Eve in areas that they are certain are safe.

Contrary to rumour, no director of any of these airlines, or any other western carrier has been ordered to fly through New Year's Eve, though the gung-ho Air Canada boss, R Lamar Durrett, plans to be airborne to celebrate the start of 2000.

"The Millennium Bug is an endangered species at Air Canada," he says. (This week, flights on Air Canada were something of an endangered species, until a threatened strike by air crews was called off 10 minutes before it was due to begin on Thursday.)

In China, however, a directive sent out to all 30 Chinese airlines by the Civil Airports Authority of China (CAAC) asks executives to consider flying through the calendar change to instill confidence in other travellers. Air China's bosses in Peking said that they would be happy to go along with this idea.

Britannia, Britain's biggest charter carrier, has decided not to operate flights for some hours either side of New Year because, said a spokeswoman, "Our tour-operator customers believe that holidaymakers will want to be settled at their chosen location before festivities and celebrations begin."

Its neighbour at Luton airport, cheapie carrier easyJet, claims an equally pragmatic reason for not flying until noon on 1 January: "Everyone will be in bed on the morning of the First", says a spokesman.

Airline staff who start the New Year out of bed and at work could qualify for some impressive bonuses. Some, like Air Canada, refused to tell us what extra rewards employees could earn. Others, including Air France, American Airlines and Garuda Indonesia say they will not be paying a special bonus for the Millennium. But their counterparts on this side of the Channel will.

British Airways employees working on the night of 31 December will be offered a special one-off payment of up to pounds 400, or up to four free tickets anywhere in the world. One person who will definitely not qualify is BA's Chief Executive, Bob Ayling, who will be officiating at the opening party at the Dome, at sea level in London SE10.

Additional research by Liz Brougham