Insights: Case Study – Scenario Planning Enables Collaborative Learning of Airport Leaders

Airport leaders are facing the most significant set of challenges of their careers during the global pandemic crisis. A near complete stoppage of flight and passenger activity by mid-April was just the initial shock to the aviation system. Aftershocks included steeply declining revenue streams that led to budget slashing; rapid implementation of costly new cleaning and sanitizing protocols; and staffing challenges resulting from infected individuals and social distancing requirements just to name a few. It can be difficult to think beyond the urgent needs of the moment in an unprecedented crisis of this magnitude and traditional planning techniques lack flexibility and creativity that these times demand.

Scenario planning provides a framework to contemplate a range of potential futures that is very different from traditional planning exercises and creates “memories of the future” to better equip decision makers as events unfold (see previous Insights article). Embraced by Shell in the 1970s, scenario planning has gained more interest and use over the last five decades with many organizations leveraging its principles to expand the dialogue about the future. C&S’s Michael Hotaling has been working with three groups of airport leaders since early March helping them craft scenario plans through collaborative dialogue so that they and their organizations will be better prepared for what lies ahead.

Several airport leaders in the western United States that have been informally gathering as the Airport Issues Roundtable, or AIR, for discussions facilitated by Michael since 2009 started the scenario planning journey in mid-March. Similar groups formed over the next few months in the Great Lakes region as well as in Florida. Representation of airport types is broad—ranging from general aviation facilities up to and including large hub airports. Each of the groups have worked independently with the results of each group’s work being shared with the other two groups.

Over the course of four 90 minute virtual meeting sessions, each group has progressed from identifying the pre-determined elements, driving forces and critical uncertainties that form the foundation of four distinctly different scenarios to completing brief narratives that describe each scenario. Conversation is documented in real time in easy to follow mind maps and interim survey and other feedback tools help to refine and define distinctly different memories of the future that participants can use in their own strategic and business planning processes.

Because scenario planning doesn’t attempt to make a forecast or prediction of a specific future it affords a group or team the opportunity to have a dialogue unconstrained by limiting factors. This creative thought process leads to a more dynamic dialogue and contemplation of a range of events that may unfold. Kevin Bumen A.A.E., C.A.E., Airport Director for the County of San Luis Obispo that operates two airports has participated in AIR for several years and said this scenario planning process has, “Helped our team to understand the variables that influence different versions of the future.”

Similarly, Ren Camacho, AAE, President & CEO of the Akron-Canton Airport participated in the Great Lakes Roundtable and said, “The sessions provided an easy, virtual platform to share thoughts, ideas, and commiserate with other Great Lakes airports about respective challenges through the COVID-19 pandemic.”  A frequent comment from participants highlights the value of the peer-to-peer learning and the formation and strengthening of relationships that naturally occur. Ren added, “These relationships and information shared will be invaluable as we emerge from the pandemic and outlook for a healthy return to the aviation industry.”

Michael Hotaling

Those in attendance at the first-ever virtual conference of the Southwest Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives (SWAAAE) had an opportunity to get a glimpse into the AIR group’s scenario planning process and play an active role in a scenario planning exercise on July 21, 2020. Kevin Bumen served as one of the panelists in the session that was moderated by Michael that included an interactive segment where the more than 150 attendees could contribute to the dialogue. Kevin remarked that feedback shared in the chat and question and answer portals indicated that the topic, “was meaningful and interesting for people.”

It’s abundantly evident that traditional forms of preparing for the future cannot adequately address the rapidly changing environment we currently inhabit. Scenario planning breaks the bonds of narrowly focused forecasts and predictions and drives a dynamic dialogue amongst a diverse team in considering a much broader range of potential futures. The outcome equips leaders with multiple memories of the future that enables better decision making as each stage of our new reality unfolds.

If you’d like to learn more about how scenario planning can better equip your organization for the future, we’re ready now to help guide your team through the process. Michael can be reached at (619) 857-5357 or by email at

Skip to content