he last thing the cruise industry needs as we head into the Wave season is for potential cruise clients to get the idea that they have better things to do on their vacation than climb aboard a cruise ship and play a gastrointestinal version of Russian roulette with somebody else's microbes.

Successive outbreaks on one ship will create a few headlines, but when three ships are in the news and two go out of service to have their Scrabble tiles scrubbed, pundits start throwing around words like "PR disaster."

As of this writing, however, we do not seem to be looking at a PR disaster. Despite some alarmist reports in the general media, we're not sensing panic out there.

It would take a PR genius not of this earth to put a positive spin on a phrase like "viral gastroenteritis," so we're not sure how much credit is due to the cruise lines' spin doctors.

But we can give some credit this time to the government's doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where officials have addressed the problem in a professional and matter-of-fact way.

It was refreshing, for example, to hear Dave Forney, the chief of the CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program, offering this response to a reporter's question during a news conference the other day:

QUESTION: I just wanted to ask, if you have a cruise booked or you're considering booking a cruise, is there any reason, at this time, to delay it?

MR. FORNEY: Not from our perspective.

It's gratifying, for once, to see public officials doing no harm where the travel industry is concerned.

• • •

How much is enough?

orthwest is offering travel agents $5 per booking if they'll take a spin on its new agent-only Web site, the one that includes "Web-only" fares.

When we asked around, several travel agents seemed underwhelmed. Five bucks, they said, is not enough.

The agents made it quite clear that they'd rather book Northwest in their res system than take the five bucks and put up with making bookings outside the GDS, giving up productivity credits, manually importing data into the back-office system and making other adjustments to their operations.

Northwest and the other major airlines should know by now that lots of travel agents have learned how to live on little or no airline commission income. And they learned to do that by adopting sales strategies and business practices that work for them.

If the airlines can't get agents to change the way they do business by waving $5 bills in their faces, then the airlines have only themselves to blame.

Do we hear $10?

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