European Air-Traffic Control Rolls Over with Ease

The Y2K team at Eurocontrol, the European air-traffic control organization that is the equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration, spent an uneventful New Year's Eve and broke open the champagne at midnight.

At 1:15 a.m. local time, 00:15 a.m. Greenwich mean time, the small communications operations room at Eurocontrol housed about 20 engineers and air-traffic control experts seated at ordinary-looking PCs. Jean-Marie Leboutte, an air-traffic control expert at Eurocontrol, picked up a ringing phone.

"Good evening, Belgrade," he said. "Say that again? No degradation detected in Yugoslavia? Thank you, Belgrade."

One by one, the 65 control centers all over Western and Southern Europe supervised by Eurocontrol called in with the same message: no degradation of services. If any center had gone down due to computer troubles, power cuts or communications breakdown, Eurocontrol was ready to divert air traffic to other regions. But there was no need, and only about 100 planes were in the air at midnight, a fraction of the 3,000 aircraft seen at peak hours, said general manager Yves Lambert.

A standby team of engineers, meanwhile, had already started dinner - a salad bar that featured salmon and scampi. Red and white wine was served. The atmosphere had been relaxed ever since reports started coming in from Australia and Asia. Much of the remaining tension dissipated at about 11:15 p.m., when Moscow reported in. The Moscow air-traffic control center is more sophisticated and more highly automated than those in earlier time zones, said George Paulson, director in charge of safety management, so Moscow was the one to watch.