Business Travel: Y2K bug may cause global travel chaos

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The Independent Online
WHAT WILL the millennium mean for business travellers? With all the major travel and tourism companies involved in major Year 2000 (Y2K) damage limitation exercises, we could enter the next millennium without a problem. Alternatively, we could all suffer serious PMT - Post Millennium Tension - with ticket bookings and travelling in the early months of 2000 becoming almost impossible.

Research by Ilena Young and Dr Bob McKercher at Australia's Charles Stuart University shows that the nature of tourism places it at particular risk from the Y2K syndrome.

They point out that although major reservation systems such as Galileo International, which processes 98 million requests for information per day are likely to be Y2K compliant, smaller businesses - which make up most of the travel industry - may be in trouble.

"The result may be air tickets issued after the travel date fares have expired, accounts payable systems failing, and software licence expiration dates kicking in," say Young and McKercher. They also point out that legal liability over Y2K connected problems are unclear. Some insurance companies are already including exclusion clauses.

Propagating doomsday scenarios should be avoided, however, says Mark Kibble, Year 2000 programme manager for the international business travel agent, Hogg Robinson/BTI.

He insists that they are expecting no particular booking difficulties but that contingency plans have been put in place so normal service is guaranteed. He said: "I don't think we're going to see planes fall out of the sky, or any technical problems that can't be dealt with."

Most airlines are similarly optimistic. Virgin Atlantic says it is too soon to speculate as to whether they will fly over the millennium itself but see no problems before or after.

British Airways is spending an estimated pounds 100m in order to achieve Y2K readiness and has nearly 3,000 information technology staff gathering data covering everything from telephone exchanges to network connections and mainframe computers to software.

The airline has also investigated all systems where they exchange data with other companies and organisations world wide, including travel agents, airport operators, other airlines, air traffic control authorities, banks and financial institutions. `We recognise that if just one link in the entire supply chain snaps, it could affect the entire enterprise,' says British Airways' Year 2000 Plan of Action leaflet.

This could be the case with Third World countries which are unlikely to have the resources to become Y2K compliant in time.

In a worst case scenario, some areas could become no-fly zones for weeks or months if air traffic control systems are not working.

Executives, MEPs and lobbyists doing regular business in Brussels and Paris will be pleased to know that getting stuck in the Channel Tunnel post-millennium should not be an option however.

There will not be a train running at midnight (although hopefully, not even the most committed of executives would want to be travelling home from work on New Year of the millennium), but with a "high level team of managers" working on Y2K compliancy, Chunnel management is confident schedules before and after the millennium will be unaffected. `We can be pretty confident that our trains will not come to a grinding halt,' says spokesperson Chris Randell, then qualifies it with:

"Of course we won't know for sure until something unforeseen comes up.'

Even if the bug turns out to be under control, will business travellers find they are having to compete for seats with leisure travellers who've booked way ahead to travel either side of the millennium?

Hogg Robinson/BTI's Mark Kibble points out that business travel is likely to decline over the millennium, with most people preparing for the celebrations. The real Y2K issue is much more basic, he says - money and where to stay.

"We are recommending that clients hold sufficient stocks of dollars and put in place contingency plans for accommodation if they are travelling close to the celebration time."