Russia, China, Japan, Italy top US Y2K warning

International travellers venturing abroad to celebrate the millennium should be aware that Russia, China, Japan and Italy top a list of countries that the US State Department views as vulnerable to widespread failures because of the year 2000 problem, according to department sources.

The State list, expected to be released September 14, identifies 53 countries that could experience "unstable conditions" in their critical infrastructure systems - such as telecommunications, power and water - as a result of undiscovered or not yet remedied bad date code. Bad date code does not recognise four-digit years in computers. The list is expected to provide a detailed examination of year 2000 problems in those countries, with air traffic control systems a key concern.

The Federal Aviation Administration has identified 35 countries that have not provided adequate information on their efforts to resolve year 2000 problems in systems critical to air traffic control.

State will issue what it calls "consular information sheets" addressing year 2000 problems in those countries.

Although not as strong as official Travel Warnings - which recommend Americans avoid travel to certain countries - the information sheets are intended to focus on areas of concern to the prudent traveller. The documents are available on the World Web at http://travel.state.gov/travel_warnings.html.

State's Web site said "if an unstable condition exists in a country that is not severe enough to warrant a travel warning, a description of the condition(s) may be included under an optional section titled 'areas of instability' " in the sheets.

A State spokesman said it is premature to determine if any country will elevate to the agency's travel warning category.

The American Society of Travel Agents considers these information sheets required reading for its members and international travellers, according to spokesman James Ashurst. These information sheets and Travel Warnings "are the first place we send consumers planning a trip...because State is in the business of protecting Americans abroad," Ashurst said.

The FAA drew up its list of 35 countries - including Russia - based on data provided by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Those countries failed to meet a July 31 deadline for reporting on the year 2000 readiness of their airport and airline computer systems.

ICAO, whose membership includes 185 countries, had delayed release of that report indefinitely. Kenneth Mead, inspector general of the Transportation Department, said "time is running out" for the countries that have not responded to the survey. Uncertainties raised by this lack of responsiveness need to be resolved within a month as people start to lock in their travel plans, Mead said.

Airlines have concerns not only about air traffic control systems but also about the power and telecommunications systems essential to the operation of air traffic control systems. Asian airlines are so concerned about the cascading impact of year 2000 on infrastructure and air traffic control systems that they have decided to reroute traffic around Indian airspace on routes from Asia to Europe.

Singapore Airlines pilots plan a "sick out" during New Year's - if necessary - to avoid problems. United Airlines is working with domestic and international organisations to gather information on the year 2000 status of countries' air traffic control systems, according to a United spokesman. "Right now, we plan to operate our entire schedule, [but] we'll only fly if we can do so safely," the spokesman said.

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