t the beginning of the year in this space, we expressed the hope that 2003 would be a memorable year, and we meant that in a good way. For people in the airline business, and for many others in travel, it appears that 2003 will be a disappointment, but the year already has produced its share of memorable events: war, SARS, a tragic and disabling fire on the Norway, the launch of a new cruise line, the end of the line for the Concorde.

To that list we now add the decision by one of the great names in travel, Rosenbluth International, to bow out of the corporate travel arena and be acquired by American Express.

This remarkable decision is a bit like a magic mirror. You could almost see in it what you will: Travel agency consolidation is moving to a new level; midsize agencies are doomed unless they merge; a family-owned business cannot compete; Rosenbluth is getting out while the getting's good; Carlson will be next; the business model for traditional travel management is unsustainable; if Rosenbluth sees no future for itself as a stand-alone company, the rest of us don't stand a chance; American Express is taking over the world; and so on.

Whether the message in any of these fortune cookies is true remains to be seen. What is clear to us now, and what bears repeating and remembering, is that 111 years is an extraordinarily long life span for a U.S. business. A company that survives and thrives for that long -- through four generations -- and which acquires and sustains a reputation for excellence and for caring about people, and whose owners decide to change their lives, is in no sense a failure.

Among the images in the Rosenbluth corporate brochure is a picture of a goldfish jumping out of a small, crowded bowl and into a larger bowl. Photographed from above, the large bowl appears as a bright and empty space.

The theme of the page is "Onward."

• • •

Airline woes

t remains a matter of some concern that the airline component of our industry is in such bad shape, but it may be reinventing itself right under our noses, as a handful of low-fare lines, led by Southwest, JetBlue and AirTran, capture an increasing share of domestic traffic.

Continental recently deferred the delivery of 36 aircraft, saying it had to see some return from the capital it already has invested. The low-fare carriers, on the other hand, are growing. JetBlue, for example, recently ordered 100 aircraft and floated a new stock issue.

Against this backdrop, Virgin Atlantic's Richard Branson says he is determined to launch a U.S. airline company next year. If he does, you can bet it will look a lot more like JetBlue than American.

This is not to say that Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue will be the Big Three of tomorrow. Nobody is saying the big network carriers are going away.

For their sakes, however, we hope somebody decides soon where they are going.

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