This holiday season marks the end of a prosperous year for American business, including many sectors of the travel industry. But as always, this sense of well-being and optimism is not shared by all. It is tempered with anxieties over the future.

For many agents, there are genuine concerns over making ends meet, the welfare of their families and employees and their ability to survive in a swiftly changing environment, in which decisions are made that affect them directly without warning and without their having a say in the matter.

Many retailers still are reeling from the impact of the domestic airlines' commission caps, the sudden additional cuts in their pay this past fall by both domestic and international airlines and generally harder positions on override payments by suppliers.

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The other day, the Airlines Reporting Corp. reported that in November, 267 full-service home, branch and single-location agencies voluntarily threw in the towel -- a record for one month. The toll for the year now stands at 1,667, and observers expect the worst is to come.

To be sure, the closings reflect retirements, career changes, mergers, efficiency moves and the like -- as well as business failures. But in the end, they will spell fewer outlets for consumers and fewer opportunities for the industry.

We shudder to think what would happen if the economy were not booming and the public not taking vacations in record numbers. Much of the potential damage from the recent cuts remains masked by the strong economy.

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Yet we are heartened by the spirit of an overwhelming number of retailers who have maintained their balance, creativity, humor and goodwill and been able to forge survival strategies. We seem to be meeting a hardier breed of travel agent, and that gives us optimism.

In this spirit, we take this opportunity to wish all season's greetings and a happy new year. We are grateful for your continuing support, your messages and your suggestions. You enrich the lives of us all in many ways.

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