Archive for Sunday, September 19, 1999


September 19, 1999


— There is the American way: Do the right thing because it is right; do the profitable thing because it is profitable. And there is another way, the authoritarian way -- the Communist way.

By now, everyone knows that computers throughout the world will read 00 as 1900 instead of 2000, unless they have been made Y2K (Year 2000) compliant. Everything from banks to nukes could be affected. But the focus is on airplanes, because something hurtling through the air at several hundred miles an hour cannot afford to have a glitch. Computer failure at 30,000 feet cannot be ridden out.

Worldwide, $23 billion has been spent to get airports and airlines ready, and most airlines are declaring the uncertain millennial eve to be business as usual, though business isn't going to be usual. U.S. airlines have reported a dearth in travel plans for the New Year holiday despite recent self-reporting that the industry as a whole is 95 percent finished with Y2K remediation efforts.

The 5 percent is troubling, and a review of American airports performed by the Aviation Millennium Project found that of the 500 airports surveyed, 120 mission-critical airline and airport systems -- from bomb-detection equipment to airplane hatches -- need additional review or revision.

Even so, the Federal Aviation Administration has signed off on U.S. airports and air carriers, and top officials of the FAA plan to be in the air on New Year's Eve as a gesture of confidence -- completely their own choice, we are told. The odds are with them. Few of us are concerned.

Not so in China. The Hong Kong airport reveals that at least two mission-critical systems won't be ready on the big day, and Chinese trains and planes have been pinpointed as problematic as well as banking and communications outside of the main coastal cities, despite Y2K contingency planning.

China already had a scare with the "four nines" computer glitch on Sept. 9. The "four nines" (Sept. 9, 1999, or, in date shorthand, 9/9/99) has been used for years as an end-of-file command in the computer industry. This bug, a cousin of the Millennium Bug, was feared to break down computers around the world. Instead, the day passed with minor difficulties, except for one rather large one in China.

China's only automated exchange for corporate shares was closed indefinitely on Sept. 9, and according to reports from China, the malfunction hasn't been identified or corrected yet. The Chinese government only expected older, factory computers to be vulnerable to the "four nines" bug.

Such a problem could be catastrophic in the air, causing death, destruction and a gigantic loss of prestige. But the government bosses in Beijing came up with a thoroughly authoritarian idea. They did not mandate solutions or appeal to man's better nature. They did not propose monetary incentives. No, China manages the old-fashioned way: you fail; you die.

The Civil Airports Authority of China (CAAC) has "asked" executives of all 30 Chinese airlines to "consider" being in the air at midnight, Jan. 1. While Chinese airline bosses are "happy" -- according to spokespersons of many of the airlines, like Air China -- to comply with the idea, it isn't much of a secret that the Chinese communist government's strong urging is coercion to insure that the airlines are Y2K complaint.

Unlike their American counterparts, however, the odds are not with them. The U.S. State Department, in conjunction with President Clinton's Y2K council, released a country-by-country travel advisory to warn Americans about possible failures related to the Y2K problem in China. Brazil, India, Russia, Eastern Europe and much of Africa are also on the list.

Our guess is that these other countries will simply follow the lead of Virgin Atlantic, a British airline, and ground their aircraft if uncertainty still reigns come Y2K Day, while China's hapless airline execs and crews take off in passengerless planes into potentially unfriendly skies.

-- Jack Anderson and Douglas Cohn are columnists for United Feature Syndicate.

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