Y2K concerns mounting

The Y2K crisis is about to become an international incident. The US State Department on September 15 will release a list of countries expected to experience severe year-2000 issues.

Industry analysts expect that Brazil, Indonesia, Italy, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand are some of the candidates for the list. That means companies operating in those countries and sending business travellers to them need to begin thinking about developing action plans.

Even prior to the State Department report, some major companies with global operations have already started to make plans of their own.

"There will be small, [two-person] teams that go into every single plant [worldwide], prior to people going back to work, to make sure everything is operational," said Kathleen Vokes, a spokeswoman for Ford Motor.

Although Ford is not placing any travel restrictions on its employees, according to Vokes, a recent Y2K report from the Gartner Group suggested that companies should reconsider sending staff on foreign travel for business and should review their dependence on international parcel services to conduct business.

Travel-related issues are the key concern at the Le Meridien Hotel chain, which has hotels on every continent except Antarctica.

The Global Distribution Services (GDS) system, used around the world by airlines, hotels, and rental car companies for making reservations, is just one potential weak link, according to Le Meridien's IT department.

"GDS is so big and has so many databases and information, it would take years to check all of it for [year-2000] compliance," said Max Malek, the IT manager at Le Meridien. "As of today I do not have a confirmation letter from any GDS system that they are compliant."

Malek has this advice for all travellers: "Get a paper copy of all your travel arrangements."

Indeed, Le Meridien is now requiring fax copies of all reservations that will be input manually on local systems.

Contingency plans at Le Meridien also include setting up a foreign currency information table with the exchange rate figured manually twice per day.

"We will do that until we feel that the computer figures are 100 per cent correct," Malek said.

The hotels' credit card transactions and employee superannuation contributions, which are typically batched and sent to the bank, are now also manually copied and filed.

According to John O'Keefe, a State Department spokesman in the Y2K office of management, the Department's forthcoming biannual Consular Information Sheets will include year-2000 readiness assessments for 172 nations. Those sheets will help people make their own travel decisions by indicating potential breakdowns in such key areas as telecommunications, energy, and transportation.

"The sheets will say, for example, Country X may have power distribution system difficulties, so travellers could expect power outages for some periods after January 1," O'Keefe said.

Following right behind the State Department, the US Federal Aviation Administration, along with the US Department of Transportation, will go online in September with its worldwide assessment of airline safety. The assessment will include evaluations of the readiness status of air-traffic control systems, global airport infrastructure including security, and the aircraft themselves. The information will be available at www.dot.gov/fly2k.

Major global computer services companies such as Compaq and IBM are in the midst of preparing to beef up their worldwide services to support their customers.

"We have plans for coverage in the countries around Y2K problems. The person heading up that operation is right now touring Asia, doing operational reviews around Y2K," said Tom Sadtler, director of marketing programs at Compaq Customer Services.

One IBM representative said the services division is asking its employees to be flexible in setting working hours during the new year.

A big part of the problem is that no one can say for sure what might happen.

"You must understand that when talking about energy, water, [and] telecommunications, the predictability is not real high. For Consular Information Sheets to have simple declarative sentences is not so easy," O'Keefe said.

However, others outside of the government are more willing to offer some details.

"Brazil is on everybody's list of important countries that are quite behind. In Western Europe it may very well be Italy," said Edward Yardeni, chief economist and global investment strategist at Deutsche Bank Securities, in New York.

According to Yardeni, travellers should also look closely at Indonesia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and many other countries whose IT infrastructures are less than stable.

The Chinese government has its own way of ensuring that its airlines will be year-2000 compliant, according to Andy Kyte, in the Year 2000 Strategies department at GartnerAccording to Kyte, the government of China recently issued a directive requiring that the top executives of airlines "must be in the air on January 1 2000."

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