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 US 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.

The US State Department 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 people 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 Web at travel.state.gov/travel_warnings.html.

The 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.

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.

The State advisory also could affect efforts by the Pentagon to respond to an urgent request from Russia to help resolve potential Year 2000 disruptions to both its nuclear command and control systems and the electronic systems that safeguard its nuclear warhead stockpiles, according to an official of a US defence contractor that has worked in the former Soviet Union for the past several years.

Any Year 2000 contracting teams sent to Russia from the United States will need to be out of Russia "well before" the new year, the official said.

DOD, which has considerable resources to help battle any Year 2000 infrastructure disruptions -- including redundant mobile communications systems, generators and water purification systems -- intends to husband those resources at its US and foreign bases.

Reports that State is about to release a report putting Italy on a travel advisory list have caught Italian aviation officials off-guard. Italy expects millions of tourists to flock to the Vatican for the New Year's celebration. "I am highly surprised," said Pierluigi D'Aloia, president of the Italian air traffic control organisation, Ente Nazionale Assistenza al Volo (ENVA).

Though he had no knowledge of any report by State, D'Aloia was quick to point out that recent visits from officials from the US Embassy and State Department had led him to believe the United States had confidence in Italy's aviation-related Year 2000 plans. According to D'Aloia, his office had met with US officials six months ago and as recently as last week.

Two lawyers sent by the US Senate six months ago had been "highly satisfied" that the Italian government had met standards set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). "They are either very good actors or liars," said D'Aloia, who was not able to supply the names of the US officials.

Both ICAO and Aeronautical Information Circular requested Year 2000 compliance reports by July 1, 1999, outlining readiness, "and we did it", D'Aloia said. ENVA is confidently expecting a visit from IATA officials in October, D'Aloia said. "By October, Italy will be in condition and performing at 100 per cent of our capacity," he added.

Japanese government officials were surprised and then dismissive on hearing that Japan may top a list of countries with potentially dangerous Year 2000 problems.

"I don't understand what the State Department is talking about," said Mitsuo Hayasaka, the deputy director of the International Air Transport Bureau in Japan's Ministry of Transport. "On Aug. 25, the Air Transport Association tested flight-control systems in Japan and confirmed that the measures taken to solve the Year 2000 problem had been successfully completed." The ATA is the US airline industry's trade association.

Hayasaka went on to say that on September 16, the final test of Japan and Korea's Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunications Network system would be conducted and that previous tests have showed that the network is secure.

Also, Japan's domestic air system will undergo a full simulation of the rollover to 2000 tonight, Hayasaka said. He said no problems were anticipated.

Other officials had similar reactions.

"I can't understand it," said Motoyuki Ishize, deputy director of the Year 2000 Office for Japan's Cabinet Secretariat, pointing out that a July report from the State Department described Japan as a "no risk" country. "We can't comment until we see the report," he added.

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