s we detailed in a story last week (Cruise lines' candor helps polish image), the stomach bug that plagues the cruise industry appears not to have shaken consumers' confidence in cruising, not even in the short term. The cruise lines (and travel agents) are reporting few cancellations, and advance bookings are proceeding along normal lines.

Much credit is given to the industry's proactive approach to the problem: Top-level executives stepped forward and explained, in significant detail, what they were doing about the problem, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helpfully noted that the virus was no cause for panic.

I think there's another reason that the cruise lines aren't suffering more: By and large, travel agents and consumers have tremendous goodwill toward the industry.

People attracted to the concept of cruising find that the experience usually lives up to their high expectations, and agents like selling a product that makes clients happy. Passenger satisfaction doesn't happen by chance -- the lines have a tradition of customer service that can be traced back to when liners were used primarily as a means to cross an ocean.

Contrast this sentiment to how travelers and travel agents regard the major airlines. There may be concerns from travelers that United, having filed for bankruptcy, will now drop routes that currently are convenient, or that frequent flyer miles are in jeopardy. But I suspect there aren't many people who worry that they may one day no longer have the option of flying specifically on United, as opposed to any other airline.

There's little differentiation of experience on the major carriers, and although travelers' expectations regarding customer service are pretty low now, the airlines keep sending the message that expectations aren't low enough yet.

In the accounting world, value ascribed to a company that's beyond its assets on a balance sheet is labeled as "goodwill." United may be the first of the Big Five airlines to find itself in bankruptcy this go-round, but it's certainly not the first that has dried up its reserve of goodwill.

Somewhere along the line, the Big Five forgot that goodwill (in its nonaccounting definition) is at the heart of all business relationships. Pricing can be adjusted quickly, features on equipment can be modified in relatively short order, but goodwill, once lost, is difficult to restore.

In the mid- and late-'90s, when airlines were flying high, they seemed to act as if customers needed them more than they needed customers. The attitude was typified by American Airlines' slogan, "Something Special in the Air." Pride is important, but they had it backwards. Customers almost always prefer to hear "You're special" rather than "I'm special."

Airlines certainly are an anomaly in the travel industry, and this may be at the heart of the problem. The industry as a whole comprises segments that understand the importance of good customer service. Tour operators, hoteliers and travel agents, in addition to the cruise lines, recognize that repeat business must be earned, not assumed.

In retrospect, it would seem that somewhere along the line, the airlines began to identify more with transportation companies -- "carriers" -- than with others in the travel industry. But they're still regarded as part of the travel industry by passengers, who can't help but notice the contrast in attitudes between them and others in the industry, and the contrast makes the reestablishment of goodwill all the more difficult.

In the spirit of the season, perhaps travel agents will resist the urge to gloat as they watch an airline that made their lives so difficult struggle for its own life. They could even steer a little business toward United, as a token of goodwill.

But I wouldn't count on it. As noted above, goodwill, once lost, is very difficult to restore.


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