Airline Terminal with bored passengers at O'Hare Airport

Airline Gamification

follow link I am not sure how many of you are familiar with The Intelligence Group, but they put out a daily newsletter describing some interesting and promising innovations they find through a large network of spotters (kind of like we are trying to do with Barrett Caldwell’s Scouts). The Feb 11 issue described three gamification ideas that airlines have launched recently in an attempt to engage passengers, improve their experience, increase their loyalty, and perhaps develop some brand advocates. I categorize this as gamification rather than advergaming (which is what they call it in the newsletter) because, at least from the descriptions, they seem to be more focused on customer experience design than advertising. (Full disclosure – I am currently writing a book on gamification that makes this distinction so I may be predisposed in that direction.) But it really doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as it gets the job done. Rather than simply granting passengers upgrades based on frequent flyer status, airlines and airports are getting into the (adver)game. Indeed, they are creating digital challenges that not only entertain idle passengers but also reward top players with free flights and better seats. Moreover, these activities stand to entice potential travelers, as they accurately evoke the pleasures of flying, from staring out the window to capturing vacation photos.

Rather than describe the actual designs, I am going to ideate a little on what they could be (working on the vain assumption that I know more than the airlines do about gamification and customer experience).

At the Gate

The first one is from Air France and gives passengers who are waiting at the gate area a competition through which they can win free upgrades to any open seats in business class. If that is all it does – blah. But the idea has a lot of potential. To increase the number of potential winners, they can introduce other/smaller prizes for something other than winning the whole shebang. They can use the idea of Mystery Boxes where the players don’t know what the prize is until they win – creating some anticipation. Research shows this spikes dopamine and engagement with any activity. They can also offer Easter Eggs where players get a reward at random – this adds double uncertainty and allows players who are not very good at the competition activity to still feel like they have a shot. Of course the Mystery Boxes and Easter Eggs would be much smaller prizes than an upgrade to business class. But airlines can be creative in what kinds of things they have to offer. I am thinking something like preboarding privileges. Costs them nothing but could mean a lot to the passenger.

From a psychology perspective, this idea has a lot of advantages.

  • First of course is the engagement created by variable rewards and variable reward schedules that I mentioned above, both of which increase motivation.
  • The sense of fairness also increases motivation. Now, it is not just the wealthy million miler who gets the upgrade. Everyone is on a level playing field to win it.
  • The competition can have just enough branding to increase brand recognition and value, without being intrusive. Perhaps a trivia contest about flying, with just a few questions linked to the airline’s brand.
  • No one feels like a loser. Because the alternative is just to keep the seat you already had, which is what normally happens, there is no cost to playing.

In the Air

The second idea comes to us courtesy of Delta. They have a competition that takes place in the airplane during flight. Players look for clouds that resemble something tangible and enter their identification into an app. You get credit for each entry. If nothing is entered for 30 seconds the game ends. This sounds really boring. But they leverage that quite cleverly by calling it the “Search for the most bored passenger.” Since the only people playing would probably start out pretty bored, making fun of it in this way can be endearing.


  • As with the first example, the game can introduce Mystery Boxes and Easter Eggs along with the grand prize to make sure that lots of people go away happy. There are many prizes that would be valued by the passenger but at minimal cost to the airline – free Wi-fi on their next flight, a free iTunes song download, maybe one of those snack boxes that they sell for $7 but have about $2 of food in them.
  • Also as with the first example, there is a very high fairness level here. Anyone can play. Since they don’t grade you on accuracy of your identifications, you could really just make stuff up so no creativity is needed. The game doesn’t care because it is just a cure for boredom anyway.
  • The game’s simplicity maximizes perceived attainability – the probability of winning something. Maybe the grand prize, maybe an Easter Egg, or maybe just a cure for boredom.
  • For really creative people, there can be some intrinsic motivation to really try and find some interesting clouds. They may not win, but that might not be what matters for them.
  • If it keeps bored kids busy, even if just for a little while, that would be incredible. Same thing for the chatty passenger who always seems to get the seat next to you. Not for the player, but for the rest of us.
  • The problem is that you need a window seat to play. And if the people in your row want the window closed so they can sleep, that could create problems. The flight attendants might need to move some people around. Or have that be part of the airline’s seat customization algorithm (as discussed in a previous post).

Day to Day

The last example is from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. This one is more of an advergame than gamification, but I still think the idea has merit. The airport tweets local photos from exotic locations using custom hashtags. Players have to guess where the photo was taken. If they don’t know, they can buy hints using points that they have previously earned.


  • As with the first two examples, Mystery Boxes and Easter Eggs can add variability and enhance the engagement.
  • To increase the number of people who “win,” they can create subgroup competitions along with a grand prize. For example a prize for the best score among Boston players, the best score for New England photos, the best score in your age group, etc. This also increases perceived attainability because the player is competing against fewer people. And it increases perceived fairness for players who don’t travel outside of particular regions. It also can create some group-identity resonance.
  • Because it takes real knowledge, winning this competition has some advantages over the first two. You get a bigger feeling of achievement when your success depended on a real skill or knowledge. Winners aren’t just lucky or bored, they are well-traveled and with good episodic memory. This is particularly motivating for people with a motivation for status or personal achievement.
  • But for the people who don’t have this knowledge, you need to accommodate them too. That is why I like the hint idea. If you spend 10 of your previously won points for a small hint or 20 for a big hint, it would be a good investment to win 100 points for a correct identification. And this way, everyone can have some perceived attainability.

Your Turn

Easy question for you today. Would you play any of these? And for advanced readers – do you have any ideas to make them better? Great ideas posted in the comments section get a Mystery Box.

Image credit: Mike8411251995

5 thoughts on “Airline Gamification”

  1. Airline operators require the passengers to arrive early for security verification. Most of the time people ( not the business class of course ) just while away their time on their phones. A good thing would be that people enjoy these games and earn rewards.

  2. Interesting. My personal experience of receiving unexpected badges as rewards when studying online was that it gave me an unexpected renewed incentive to continue.
    I had been a badge sceptic prior to receiving hem myself.
    Strange but true.

  3. This is a brilliant idea , time flies when you have fun!
    I would definitely play some of these games. I particularly like the cloud game as I am fascinated with the clouds when I travel.
    One idea on window seat challenge would be to project the clouds into the passengers screens so everybody could take part in the game.

    Another game idea could be “fly the plain” where passengers could have a app flying simulation. The app maybe simulates the cockpit and the sky views and they will have to take off and land the plane

    They could be rewarded if they landed safely with points or the “BA pilot ” budge

    Another idea ” meet in the air” , lots of people are on dating sites and airports and planes are full of single people hoping to meet somebody, why not help them introduce each other through an app maybe.

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