Like running an airline is like playing a board game well

When I published a story about how US airlines would fit on a Monopoly board, the general feedback was positive and some commented on the idea of ​​having airlines in mind for such an iconic game. The idea came about when I wanted to show visually how competition works in the industry and how hard it is to win when four big players own most of everything. The analogy is far from perfect, and many may have different ideas about how Monopoly properties could be better distributed.

As a lifelong board game player, I’ve often thought of my roles in airlines as I played, and was surprised at how often similarities emerged. So rather than thinking about customizing other games in particular, it’s a better idea to think about gaming in general. Many of the skills needed to be a successful board gamer can be applied to running a successful airline:

Know how to win before the first move

Mediocre board game players initially focus on the mechanics of the game – what you actually do each round – rather than the win conditions. Each game lesson should begin with the lines, “You win this game by ______.” When you win by having the most money, you have to be sure to do things that will make you money, more than the other players. When you win by having points, money can be a tool to get the points, but it’s the points that must be chased. Some games require you to have a balance of items. So if you focus too much on one, you are actually hurting yourself.

The airline business is similar. If you’re starting an airline from scratch, like Breeze and Avelo recently did, how are you going to win? Will you find routes that no other airline serves and own, or strive for routes that other airlines have already built? How will you stack up against much larger, better capitalized competitors as well as airlines with potentially lower unit production costs? If you don’t know where to aim, you won’t know where to shoot.

If you are an existing airline what is the profit for you? Is it just about surviving another year, gaining market share, making money on every route flown, or having the best customer service ratings? It could keep most people busy or pay them best. Airlines that don’t know how to answer that focus on the mechanics – how to fly the planes, keep them airworthy, have crews available for each flight, sell enough new tickets each day to cover a day’s operating costs blankets etc. These are all important. But if you don’t know how to win, how do you know you’re going to use the mechanic to win the game?

Don’t worry about your score in the middle

Some strategies take time to develop. Board game newbies worry too much about their position on the score track well before the end of the game. Yes, you don’t want to fall so far behind that you can’t catch up. But when your goals are clear and your strategy is in motion, that score doesn’t matter that much, and it’s often better to stay focused.

Airlines are the same. Routes take time to develop, but eventually they move from prospect to suspect. Airport real estate is often a lengthy game that takes time to add facilities slowly. IT priorities often mean that great new marketing ideas aren’t available for a few quarters. When these and other ideas develop, it doesn’t give the company the ability to accept mediocrity. But it also means they don’t need to panic when the initiatives, even if they aren’t ready yet, are in place and will deliver results soon.

When Delta Airlines bought an oil refinery that would otherwise have closed in 2012, it didn’t put its company on the strategy but took a step to try to more closely control large input costs. Ten years later, it’s not clear that this was a good investment, but it’s not a bust either. The point is that in the middle of the game they weren’t worried about the outcome.

Be willing to sacrifice for the greater good

One of my favorite games is called Chinatown. In this 1990’s game, the board represents neighborhoods in Chinatown divided into groups of squares. Each round, players randomly receive deeds for specific properties and tiles representing businesses. Players try to get neighboring properties to place enough of the same business tiles to earn the most money. The game focuses on open negotiation each round, where players can trade anything including business tiles, real estate and cash, present and future. The easiest way to lose this game is to hold on to lots and deals you’ve drawn and expect to receive value without giving anything. I can often tell how experienced players are by their reactions to initial trades, where I’m often willing to offer the most valuable things I own. I also have a good win record for this game.

Airlines sometimes have to make sacrifices to achieve a better long-term outcome. Agreeing with a union on wages that look scary for the cost structure can be a good deal in the long run, depending on how others react. Making commitments on future planes can be one of the tougher decisions an airline makes given that money is being committed today for planes that may not arrive for years.

The pandemic has kind of forced this. Faced with a dramatic drop in revenue and an uncertain recovery, airlines used frequent flyer programs as collateral for new loans and pawned planes they already owned. Although previously free assets had to be used, these moves kept some airlines afloat while revenues were still highly suspect. These decisions, which some appear to have required, nonetheless forced companies to consider short-term balance sheet risks in order to sustain their businesses.

Play with integrity

In board games, there are often times when everyone is playing at the same time. Usually this follows a few rounds in which players assign workers, gather resources, or set up a production machine. During simultaneous play, each player uses the results of previous actions to make moves for their own position. No one expects anyone to cheat and there would likely be harsh consequences if they did. Playing overtime without integrity means having no one to play with.

In the airline business, integrity follows for several reasons. Gordon Bethune, Continental Airlines’ turnaround CEO in the 1990s, likes to say, “Never lie to your doctor, your attorney, or your employees.” Maintaining integrity with employees is difficult for some leaders, as the truth is often hard to tell and is harder to hear. Yet airlines that have a culture of treating employees right and always telling it like it is tend to do much better than those that don’t.

Integrity also follows from transparency and fairness. As airlines have been charging for ancillary services, the biggest problem for consumers has been how to meet expectations well. Airline refund policies have come under fire lately because some airlines have refused to offer refunds, although almost all would agree it would make sense to do so. Several US airlines confidently said they had “solved” the problem of families sitting together when traveling with a young child. Yet to achieve this with the airlines with mission accomplished, you have to call and possibly wait a long time to speak to someone. At this time, no airline guarantees this online through their booking path. Playing with integrity would mean not claiming a problem is fixed until it is actually fixed.

Seek and seize opportunities

When playing a board game, it’s often important to know when to hold back and when to strike. In games like Ticket to Ride, holding back could mean losing an important link, since only one or two players, depending on how many are playing, can use each link. The other side of this coin is snagging that last spot on a link that you and a competitor both likely need and locking them out.

In the airline business, being a first mover can have great benefits. In 2010, Spirit introduced the world’s first carry-on fee. Widely criticized, it was a huge hit and copied by others in the US and Europe. In response to changing business travel trends, American Airlines has recently reduced the size of its corporate sales force. Many have wondered if this will work and if others might copy it, but they saw an opportunity and took a bold step to address it.

But airlines are not a game!

Comparing board games and airlines is fun and can be enlightening. But that doesn’t mean running an airline is a game. Board games are fun ways to compete with almost no real-world consequences. You can lose a game and have as much fun as the winner. Airlines are tough business and good decisions result in profits that can be invested in people, planes and growth. Bad decisions lead to lost jobs and difficult family situations, not to mention many stranded customers.

Following these rules will help make better decisions and result in more profits, better paid employees and lower fares for consumers. This is how airlines really win!

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