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
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,
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.