While the ongoing coronavirus crisis has prognosticators worried about the future of air travel, one does not need to venture too far back into aviation history to find a period full of similar angst.
The Y2K problem, unlike many issues in society in need of mitigation, had a firm deadline: January 1, 2000. It was at this point, when the date rolled over into the new year, that old computer programs could presumably fail, causing untold chaos the world over unless action was taken.
The problem was simple: Computers that used two digits to represent the year would incorrectly register the new millennium as 1900. This date protocol was a holdover from the era of punch cards and was used in early computer systems to conserve memory, which came at a premium.
Preparedness initiatives began in earnest by the Federal Aviation Administration in 1997. The agency spent over $160 million to comb through 222 computer programs and some 21 million lines of code, and began patching the mission critical systems first. Meanwhile, some airlines decided to reduce flight schedules for as long as 24 hours during the New Year’s rollover. Sharon Pomerantz, former director of Industry and Public Affairs at Virgin Atlantic, says that a cost analysis at the time revealed that it would be beneficial for the small carrier to ground part of its fleet. She recalls fielding concerns about air traffic control going dark and e-tickets no longer being valid. Her colleague, James Pinto, the airline’s general manager of Airport Customer Services Global, heard rumors that plane systems like autopilot would crash.
“None of us can ever imagine a future where we don’t go anywhere.” — Kurt Ebenhoch, Travel Fairness Now
United Airlines spent $85 million on Y2K preparedness and “left no stone unturned” when it came to testing, says Kurt Ebenhoch, a former United spokesperson who is now a consumer advocate with Travel Fairness Now. Everything from flight dispatch systems to reservation systems and beyond needed to be certified Y2K-approved.
Ebenhoch spent the night of December 31, 1999, at United’s operations center in Elk Grove Township, Illinois, nine miles from Chicago O’Hare, along with others who were monitoring the situation. He describes the environment as similar to the Houston control room from Apollo 13, but with a lot less smoking. When the first flight to cross the midnight threshold came and went without a hitch, the mood in the control center lightened.
Peter de Jager, one of the foremost experts on Y2K and host of the Y2K: An Autobiography podcast, was also in Chicago that fateful night, but flew to Heathrow to demonstrate that there was nothing to fear. When midnight struck and the captain confirmed that all systems were operational, de Jager and the few others on board feted the occasion. De Jager is quick to point out that Y2K turned out to be a non-event thanks to the years of hard work of countless people who rigorously inspected and patched computer systems.
Ebenhoch agrees and is confident that the airline industry will find its way through the coronavirus crisis much like it did in the days leading up to Y2K. “None of us can ever imagine a future where we don’t go anywhere,” he says. “We will travel again and we’re going to travel better.”
“Crisis Averted” was originally published in the 10.3 June/July issue of APEX Experience magazine.