To express her confidence that the Year 2000 computer glitch won't affect air travel, Federal Aviation Administration director Jane F. Garvey pledged to be high in the sky, flying from Washington to the West Coast, when the new year rolls around.
But keeping that promise is turning out to be tougher than expected because nobody else, it seems, wants to fly anywhere this New Year's Eve.
The flight Garvey had hoped to take from Reagan National Airport--American Airlines Flight 1799, leaving at 6:06 p.m. for Dallas-Fort Worth and connecting on to San Francisco--was canceled a few weeks ago. Several days later, the next flight she was booked on, a 5:13 p.m. departure for Dallas, also was wiped from the schedule.
She's now on her third reservation, hoping that American Flight 1099 will take off as planned and deposit her in California seven minutes after midnight on Jan. 1. However, only a paltry 25 people--two-thirds of them from the news media--have made bookings so far on the 138-seat Boeing MD-80.
"We really have found the world, come the evening of Dec. 31, is divided into two parts: those who are celebrating the millennium and those whose eyes will be glued to a computer to find out if the chips work," said American spokesman John Hotard. "Both of those groups will be in place on the ground when the great event occurs or doesn't occur."
Last New Year's Eve, American reduced its schedule by about 10 percent. This year, the airline expects to cancel about 20 percent of its scheduled flights.
"We've got low demand," Hotard said.
Other airlines are facing the same situation. United Airlines has eliminated 22 percent of its regularly scheduled flights on Dec. 31 and 12 percent on New Year's Day. Virgin Atlantic Airways will ground its entire fleet for 24 hours starting at midday on Dec. 31. And Frontier Airlines, a low-fare carrier based in Denver that averages 94 flights a day, plans to scrap 34 flights on Dec. 31 and 18 on Jan. 1 because of insufficient reservations; the airline will not operate any flights after 9 p.m. on the 31st.
"Nobody wants to be in the air on New Year's Eve," said Frontier spokeswoman Elise Eberwein.
Airline officials and travel agents say the lack of interest in flying on the holiday isn't just because of the possibility of computer problems related to the rollover to 2000. Most people want to be at their destination of choice--from Times Square to the comfort of their living room--by the evening of Dec. 31.
"The primary reason seems to be that nobody wants to be anywhere other than a special place with special people when the clock strikes midnight," said Steve Loucks, a spokesman for the Carlson Wagonlit travel agency, which has 1,300 offices nationwide. "They don't want to be sitting in an airplane."
Sophie Bethune, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, said that while most airlines are canceling or consolidating more flights than last year, the moves have nothing to do with fears of Y2K disasters. A poll conducted for the association found that less than 10 percent of potential travelers said they would avoid travel on New Year's Eve for safety or other reasons, she said.
Garvey isn't the only high-profile Washingtonian having a problem getting aloft on New Year's Eve.
White House Y2K adviser John Koskinen had hoped to take a shuttle flight from Washington to New York so that he would be in the air at 7 p.m., or midnight "Universal Time," the clock observed around the world by air-traffic controllers. But Delta Air Lines and US Airways have cut the number of shuttle flights, making it difficult for Koskinen to return from New York the same night to carry out his duties at the White House's Y2K crisis management center.
Koskinen, though, intends to find a way to be in the air. "One way or another, I will be on an airplane," he vowed.
He suggested that he might fly instead on New Year's Day, but that trip would come after the calendar change, putting its symbolic value into doubt. But Koskinen's spokesman, Jack Gribben, said, "Whether we do that on the 31st or the 1st, I think it is a significant showing of our confidence in the system, that it works and has gone through the rollover."
Delta spokesman Kip Smith said the airline would work with Koskinen "to get him on some planes." Late afternoon and evening flights were cut back because of low passenger demand, Smith said.
Even with the tepid interest in New Year's Eve flights, the airlines aren't offering any great deals. For instance, a round-trip flight between San Francisco and Washington on United Airlines that includes a Dec. 31 red-eye still costs $613.50, even with a 21-day advance purchase.
United spokeswoman Kristina Price said the airline has not lowered its prices for holiday travel because "people are still buying tickets." But she said the airline will continue to evaluate demand in the coming weeks and could adjust prices then.
Garvey, who will be flying coach class, will qualify for a federal government discount rate.
In a bid to make a dreary flight more fun, a number of Garvey's aides plan to wear black ties and tuxedos. Drucella Andersen, a top public affairs officer at FAA, will don black velvet gloves and a pink cummerbund.
With luck, Garvey can flip the calendar at midnight Universal Time, midnight Rocky Mountain time and midnight Pacific time.
As she told Andersen yesterday, "This will be the first time I will celebrate New Year's three times in one night."