When I posted a story about how US airlines would fit into the Monopoly Board, the general response was positive, with some commenting on the idea of thinking of airlines in such an iconic game. The idea came about when I wanted to visually show how competition works in the industry and how hard it is to win when four huge players own most of everything. The analogy is far from perfect, and many may have different ideas about how the monopoly’s holdings could be better distributed.
As a lifelong board gamer, I’ve often thought about my airline roles while playing a game and been surprised at how often similarities pop up. So instead of thinking about adapting other games in particular, it’s a better idea to think about the game as a whole. Many of the skills needed to be a successful board game player translate to running a successful airline:
Know how you win before the first move
Mediocre board game players initially focus on the mechanics of the game—what you actually do on each turn—rather than the win conditions. Every game teaching session should start with the lines “You win this game with ______”. If you win by having the most money, you need to be sure to do things that make you money, and more than the other players. If you win by having points, money may be a tool to get points, but it’s the points that should be pursued. Some games require you to have a balance of items, so if you focus too much on one, you’re actually hurting yourself.
The airline business is similar. If you start an airline from scratch, as Breeze and Avelo recently did, how do you plan to make a profit? Will you find routes that no other airline serves and own them, or will you follow routes that other airlines have already built? How will you win against much larger, better capitalized competitors as well as airlines that may have lower unit production costs? If you don’t know where you’re aiming, you don’t know where to shoot.
If you are an existing airline, what does it earn for you? Are you just surviving another year, or gaining market share, or making money on every route you fly, or having the highest customer service ratings? It may hire the most people or pay them the best. Airlines that don’t know how to answer this question focus on the mechanics – how to operate the planes, keep them airworthy, have crews for each flight, sell enough new tickets each day to cover the cost of a day’s work, etc. , They are all important. But if you don’t know how you win, how do you know you’re going to use the mechanics to win the game?
Don’t worry about your score midway
Some strategies take time to develop. Beginning board game players are overly concerned with their position on the scoreboard long before the game is in its final phase. Yes, you don’t want to fall so far behind that you can’t catch up. But if your goals are clear and your strategy is on track, that outcome doesn’t matter as much, and it’s often better to stay focused.
Airlines are the same way. Routes take time to develop, but at some point they go from prospect to suspect. Airport real estate is often a long game that takes time to slowly add facilities. IT priorities often mean great new marketing ideas aren’t available for several more quarters. As these and other ideas evolve, it does not give the company the ability to accept mediocrity. But it also means that there is no need to panic if the initiatives, even if they are not ready yet, are there and will produce results soon.
When Delta Airlines bought an oil refinery that would otherwise have closed in 2012, they didn’t bet their company on the strategy, but instead took a step to try to more closely control large raw material costs. Ten years later, it’s unclear whether it was a good investment, but it’s not a bust either. The thing is, they weren’t worried about the score in the middle of the game.
Be willing to sacrifice for the greater good
One of my favorite games is called Chinatown. In this game from the 1990s, the board represents neighborhoods in Chinatown, divided into groups of squares. Each round, players are randomly assigned documents for specific lots and tiles representing firms. Players try to get adjacent lots to place enough of the same business tiles to win the most money. The game focuses on open negotiations each round, where players can trade anything, including business tiles, lots and money, present and future. The easiest way to lose this game is to hold tight to the lots and businesses you have drawn and expect to get value without giving any away. I can often tell how experienced players are by their reactions in initial trades where I am often willing to offer the most valuable things I own. I also have good winnings for this game.
Airlines also have to make sacrifices at times for a better long-term bottom line. Bargaining with a union on wages that look scary to the cost structure could be a good deal in the long run, somewhat based on how others react. Making commitments for future aircraft can be one of the most difficult decisions an airline makes, given that money is being committed today for aircraft that may not even arrive for years.
The pandemic forced this in several ways. Faced with a dramatic drop in revenue and no certainty of recovery, airlines used frequent flyer programs as collateral for new loans and mortgaged previously owned aircraft. Although they had to use previously idle assets, these moves kept some airlines alive while revenues were still highly suspect. These decisions, while seemingly required by some, still forced companies to think about short-term balance sheet risk in order to preserve their businesses.
When playing board games, there are often times when everyone is playing at the same time. This usually follows several rounds as players hire workers, gather resources, or set up a production engine. 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 if they do, there will likely be severe consequences. Playing without integrity overtime means having no one to play with.
In the airline business, integrity follows in several ways. Gordon Bethune, the turnaround CEO of Continental Airlines in the 1990s, likes to say, “never lie to your doctor, your lawyer, or your employees.” This integrity with employees is difficult for some leaders because the truth is often hard to speak and 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 transparency and fairness. As airlines added ancillary service charges, the biggest problem for consumers was managing expectations well. Recently, airline refund policies have come under fire, with some airlines refusing to offer refunds even when almost everyone would agree that it would make sense. A number of American airlines have confidently stated that they have “solved” the problem of families sitting together when traveling with a small child. Yet for this to happen on “mission accomplished” airlines, you have to call and possibly wait a long time to speak to someone. At the time of writing, no airline yet guarantees this online through their booking path. Playing with integrity would mean not claiming the problem is fixed until it really is.
Search and seize the opportunity
When playing a board game, it’s often important to know when to hold back and when to hit. In a game like Ticket to Ride, being held back can mean losing an important link, as only one or two players, depending on how many are playing, can use each link. The other side of this coin is taking the last seat in a relationship that you both probably need and blocking them out.
In the airline business, being the first to move can have great advantages. In 2010, Spirit introduced the world’s first carry-on fee. Heavily criticized, it was a great success and was copied by others in the US and Europe. American Airlines recently reduced the size of its corporate sales in response to changing trends in business travel. Many wondered if it would work and if others could copy, but they saw an opportunity and made a bold move to pursue it.
But airlines are not a game!
Making comparisons between board games and airlines is fun and can be insightful. 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 player who won. Airlines are a tough business and good decisions lead to profits that can be invested in people, aircraft 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 lead to more profits, better paid employees and lower rates for consumers. This is how airlines really win!