Who's Afraid of Y2K?

Congratulations! Insurers have been among the most forward-thinking (and acting) when it comes to squashing the so-called millennium bug. (If you're still not sure what that is, see "It Wasn't a Programmer's Mistake," page 72.) So your department likely has done the necessary assessment, reconfiguring, replacing, and testing that leaves you confident about what your office will look like and where your data will be when you get to work on Monday, January 3, 2000.

But what about your meeting suppliers? By now, they should be able to give you concrete answers about their progress toward Y2K compliance. In fact, consultants have been advising companies to have all their remediation/replacement done by December 31, 1998, so there's plenty of time to make sure it all works before that fateful New Year's Day. If you haven't surveyed the airlines, hotels, DMCs, and other vendors that you expect to be doing business with in the 2000s, it's time to make it a priority.

What We Found Out The major airlines and hotel chains have created Y2K program offices with staff dedicated to solving the problem. Some even have spokespeople dedicated to talking about it. Here's what a few of them had to say.

At American Airlines in Dallas, spokesperson Tim Smith said, "We are very comfortable that we will be able to fly to the overwhelming majority of our [destinations] on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day." If for any reason the airline, which has spent more than $100 million on the problem, is not completely comfortable with the readiness of an airport or destination, he added, "we won't go there."

Kip Smith, a spokesperson for Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, said the carrier is "right on target" to fly "successfully and seamlessly into the new millennium. The critical systems--what it takes to make the airline run--will be completely remediated or replaced by the end of this year. The test phase will run through the middle of next year."

Northwest Airlines, according to its Year 2000 Program Office in Minneapolis/St. Paul, will have all necessary conversions complete by March 1, 1999.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which at the beginning of this year had observers raising red flags all over the place, apparently has whipped itself into shape. Administrator Jane Garvey told the annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association in Montreal in June that the FAA would have all renovated or replaced systems ready by this past September. Follow-up testing, she said, will be completed by March 1999.

Tom Browne, who is heading up an oversight committee for the Air Transport Association in Washington, D.C., said earlier this year that the association was "concerned" about the FAA's progress. "Having said that, we also are working with the FAA and looking at its plans. The situation is not as dire as everyone once thought. The FAA has completed 8,000 hours of testing of its computers, and not one of them has experienced a single Y2K failure."

If you're curious about how the airplanes themselves are being brought into compliance, here's what Boeing concluded, as summarized in an article at the company's Web site: "Only a few of the airborne systems on [Boeing's] airplanes use the date function. As a result most are immune to potential problems with the date rollover. In addition, no safety-of-flight issues related to Y2K for airborne systems exist for an airplane in flight."

Back on the Ground With your hotel suppliers, everything from worldwide reservation systems to the air conditioning in an individual property has the potential to be messed up by the coming of the year 2000.

In the July issue of the hospitality automation magazine Update, independent consultant Jon Inge wrote, "This is a relatively trivial technical issue in its origins, yet its operational implications grow wider and wider the more you look at it. Technically speaking, replacing all your computers in 1999 with new models and new software would take care of that aspect, but what about the elevators? Fire alarm systems?"

The challenge with elevators and such is what Peter de Jager recently called "the Achilles heel of Y2K"--embedded systems. (The Brampton, Ontario-based de Jager has been speaking and writing about Y2K longer and louder than just about anyone else.) A huge number of things, from microwaves to elevators, have been built containing control chips which may use date/time functions. "There are billions of them," de Jager wrote at his Web site in September. "They're hidden from sight. They may or may not work on the rollover."

Tom Stirniman, director of Y2K at the Braintree, Mass.-based technology center of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, said all properties have been surveyed about what embedded systems they have on site. Starwood also has been compiling information from hundreds of vendors and posting that information on the Internet to help individual hotels assess their readiness. As for the hotel company's centralized systems (for reservations and the like), Stirniman said work began in 1996, and since June of this year, reservations into the year 2000 have actually been loaded into systems.

He noted that Starwood has been receiving numerous inquiries and checklists from its various customers, and points out that a formal statement from J. Michael Kennedy, chief information officer for Starwood, is now posted at www.starwood-y2k.com.

At Marriott Hotels and Resorts, Ina Kamenz said all of the chain's mission-critical systems have been made compliant and will have a third round of testing completed on them by the end of this year. Kamenz is vice president in the office of the chief information officer in Washington, D.C., and is heading up Marriott's Y2K Program Office. Marriott's 6,000-person sales force has received a letter to be given to meeting customers who ask about the company's compliance plans. Those inquiries have begun to come in from insurance conference planners, according to Mike Murphy, director of insurance sales.

Kamenz noted that the chain has undertaken "a very aggressive program for our buildings. We want insurance conferences to come in and not have to worry about elevators."

At Hilton Hotels Corp., Joe Durocher, senior vice president and chief information officer, said the hunt has been on for Y2K gremlins since 1996. "There's a lot to do," he said. "We are keeping our eyes peeled for anomalies."

Hyatt Corp. has been knee-deep in the compliance issue for two years, according to Bob Bansfield, the chain's assistant vice president, MIS, in Chicago. "Our goal has been to have all hotel systems compliant by the end of the year," he said. Hyatt outsources its technology services to a company that has developed a formal process for assessing and remediating the chain's technology. To answer customer questions, Hyatt created a two-page document that gives an overview of its efforts. Meeting planners can request the document through sales managers at individual properties or from their national sales contacts, Bansfield said.

Earlier this year the American Hotel & Motel Association published a Technology Compliance Guide for its members. The 36-page guide goes through five steps of a compliance plan, according to Robert Elliott, AH&MA's director of regulatory affairs, who wrote the guide. And the Paris-based International Hotel & Restaurant Association (IH&RA) has released a series of briefs offering strategies for tackling the problem. (For information, visit www.ih-ra.com.)

At the THISCO service division of Pegasus Systems in Dallas, spokesperson Karin Wacaser said, "Hotel reservation systems and global distribution systems that are not Y2K compliant risk significant losses if these systems fail to book hotel rooms. Reservation data could possibly be rejected due to nonrecognition of the 2000 date." The company has designed a program specifically for testing whether or not systems are Y2K compliant, and many of its 100 hotel company customers, which represent 27,000 properties in 150 countries, are doing the tests. "We're in the hands of the hotels," she said.

PGI, in Arlington, Va., is in the midst of checking with suppliers just as meeting planners are. (PGI is a group of companies including destination management companies, trade show organizers, and production companies.) "We're going through the basics," said Susan Compton, PGI's director, information services. "Everyone focuses on software but that's not the only issue. It's anything that has a date stamp on it, from our editing machines, to elevators, to pagers. We will be compliant."

What You Should Ask Here's what you need to know from your suppliers:

1. Ask hardware and software vendors if your equipment and software are compliant with the International Standards Organization's Y2K recommendations. Be aware of any hybrid additions to your software, warns E.J. Siwek, a software designer and head of Meeting Professionals International's technical advisory committee. A solution for a general software program will not necessarily make corrections in software added at a later date.

2. Work with your MIS people and attorneys to develop a questionnaire for suppliers--hotels, convention centers, airlines, travel agencies, multimedia producers, and contractors. How much time have they allowed for testing remediated systems? How have they handled the problem of embedded systems?

3. In addition to a questionnaire, consider adding a clause to contracts that protects your booking in case of a Y2K glitch. Contract language might ask suppliers to guarantee that its computer systems "will correctly process, store, and display data notwithstanding changes in day, week, month, year, decade, century, or millennium according to the Gregorian calendar."

4. Continue to follow up. Call several months before the meeting to make sure that the supplier is Y2K compliant. A disconcerting thought: Not every problem will pop up on January 1, 2000. Problems could occur throughout the year. Some specialists predict that glitches could arise even as late as 2003.

The last word goes to PGI's Susan Compton: "Hopefully we'll all have a sense of humor around that time."

--Additional reporting by Joseph Conlin

www.year2000.com--The Year 2000 Web site maintained by Peter de Jager, one of the more prolific writers and speakers on the topic. "It's become an obsession," he said during a Y2K presentation at the Meeting Professionals International Professional Education Conference a year ago in Orlando--a session which barely two dozen of the meeting's 2,100 delegates chose to attend.

www.yardeni.com--Clear, comprehensive commentary and reporting from Edward Yardeni, chief economist for Deutsche Bank Securities in New York and Wall Street's de facto expert on the issue. You'll also find his continually updated opinion of the probability (at press time, 70 percent) of a global recession due to the millennium bug.

www.boeing.com/companyoffices/aboutus/y2k/--Here you can read an article that details, with lots of acronyms, all the things on Boeing's planes that were checked for compliance. Unless you're a pilot, you probably won't understand everything. But it seems comforting.

www.faay2k.com--The Federal Aviation Administration has put tons of Y2K data up at this site. You can choose to read two pages of remarks on the issue by FAA head Jane Garvey, or you can dig deep for details of the agency's work on the problem.

Most people understand that the so-called millennium bug stems from the fact that in computer hardware and software the world over, years are represented by two digits. It's "98" rather than "1998."

What a lot of people still don't understand is that the two-digit representation of years was a conscious decision made in the early days of computers when memory was expensive and precious. Using only the last two digits of a year, and in some cases "hard-wiring" the "19" into place, seemed like a good deal in software and systems that programmers were sure would be replaced by the time 2000 came around. But a lot of that stuff is still with us, and when the year changes from 1999 to 2000, these systems will think they're running in the year "00." Computers that read the "00" as "1900" could shut down, malfunction, send the wrong message to some other computer, or who knows what? Hence, the bug.

Where will Jane Garvey, administrator, Federal Aviation Administration, celebrate New Year's Eve 1999? In the air, of course. To demonstrate their confidence in the airline industry's readiness to greet the year 2000, Garvey and Ray Long, director of the FAA's Y2K Program Office, plan to take off just before midnight Greenwich Mean Time and fly west through all four U.S. time zones as the country's clocks strike midnight.