In sports games, there are two primary genres. There is the simulation of the sport itself, where you get to play the sport. Then there is the management aspect, which is mostly hands-off and more about manipulating numbers on a spreadsheet than athletics. If a similar distinction could be made for the airline industry, Global Star’s Airline Manager would fall in the latter. It’s a business management (tycoon) type of game but unlike recent economic simulation fare, it focuses on what it does best and throws out the graphics to give you the bare minimums required to run an airline.
When you first begin a game in Airline Manager, you have to select an airport as your home base. At first I was disheartened by the fact that I couldn’t select my home town as the major airport and I found out that most major airports were neglected. But that was merely a feature. You can’t base your airline at a busy hub. So I chose a snowy Canadian city as my starting point. Each airport has a list of demands and specific routes available to the location. A New York hub, for example, only goes to one international destination and a few regional ones. This information can only come through money invested in research. You can’t add or change the default routes at each airport but you can setup regional offices and also run advertising campaigns to boost demand for your airline.
Setting up routes and airplanes is an easy task. Each plane comes with its own maintenance costs, range and speed specifications. Airline Manager wasn’t able to secure rights to the hot names in the industry so most of the names are fudged but you’ll see the usual Boeing, Lockheed Martin as well as older European counterparts like Fokker. This simulation begins in the 1950s so aircraft choice is limited in the beginning. Typically, on each route, you’ll have to judge between maintenance costs, initial capital investment and how profitable the route is. Is it in hot demand? Should you buy an aircraft that is fast but holds fewer people and make more than one run? Is it a long route and holds better for planes that hold more people but at slower speeds? These decisions affect how healthy your profits will be and via extension, whether your setup makes up for what it costs to hold down a route. Yes, opening up a route to another airport costs money up front too.
Airline Manager offers some good statistics on your planes. You can sort your planes by passengers carried or which one is most profitable. You can sort your planes by speed or age of your fleet. The interface is even intuitive enough to let you replace planes on pre-existing routes so you won’t have to can a plane (plus the route) and then setup a new one. You can simply replace it with an idle plane or a new one (the old one becomes idle afterwards). Curiously, you can’t switch it with another plane on a pre-existing route.
Since the whole title revolves around going through one screen or another, there are some unpolished flow problems to the game. For one thing, you can’t see the destination route and the plane on the same screen. To find out a plane’s route, you have to open up the details of the plane. I got around this by naming my planes after airport codes but it really shouldn’t operate that way. There is, moreover, a geographical map of the world. There’s some map-related statistics like which regions are most profitable but it would have been better if I could see my fleet of planes traveling across the globe. The global map is probably the only piece of significant graphic in the entire game.
Airline Manager kept me amused though. The game runs real-time and you can set it to advance by the hour, day or minute. A neat and handy feature (again nestled under two menus) is an option to jump to the next event. Typically, you’ll encounter aircraft damage events. Hopefully, you won’t run your airline like UAL and fix your planes with duct tape. However, there are other ones to spice things up. People may pay you extra for VIP passages from one place to another. Bonuses may be offered if you hook two airports up. Children can be born on airplanes, boosting customer approval or someone could die on your airplane, which has an adverse effect on customer satisfaction. The most interesting ones are the travel agencies. They buy a pre-set amount of tickets on your flights. For example, in a Dayton, Ohio to New York regional flight, the more popular the route got, the more the travel agencies snapped up. Thus, by default, I’d get a minimum number of travelers on my planes, albeit, those guaranteed passenger tickets are sold at discounted prices.
Airline Manager is not the most realistic game around. For one thing, the demand is always pretty high on almost all routes. With a little investment in advertising and service, you’ll be able to max out on your entire flight; regional, international or anything in between. That’s something that can’t be said about the current airline industry. Another issue deals with the age of your fleet. Airlines can often run airplanes for decades. Airplanes in Airline Manager start becoming more hassle than they are worth after about two years in service. Thereafter, they become liabilities because they’re unreliable or, in the extreme case, they could potentially crash.
However, there are some points that Airline Manager did get right. To setup international routes, you have to go heavily in debt (to the in-game bank). And it really praises the virtues of a well-run regional airline service. JetBlue and Southwest come to mind. A smaller niche-focused airline may not match the raw revenues of a behemoth but its profits may actually be higher. That’s extolling the strengths of a better focused air carrier.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by Airline Manager. It’s perfect for the handheld format because it relies very little on flashy panache. The pace of the game is very event driven and this makes it easier to shut the game off when you’re on the move. True, there are some unpolished aspects of it. And some portions of the game are certainly lacking in depth compared to products I’ve seen on the PC. In the final analysis, though, Airline Manager soars high in its attempt to bring a business simulation to the Pocket PC.
[10/10] Program Size
[12/15] Learning Curve