Projects and Programs: Aircraft and Airports

On several occasions recently I have had to help customers come to terms with their project lifestyle choice and convince them of the values of program management.

In describing the difference between projects and programs I find it pays to use language the business folks readily understand. My favorite way is to use a metaphor.

Managing a project is like flying an aircraft. Managing a program is like running an airport.

Projects, like aircraft, come in all sizes: big and small. Depending on size you may have more (or less) people and technology onboard to help you with the flight. Unfortunately when you crash, the bigger you are the more people can get hurt (including you sometimes).

Programs are more like airports, with aircraft (projects) taking off and landing all the time. But you have a lot of supporting organization and infrastructure to look after as well.

I find the metaphor works very well to draw attention to the unifying purpose of programs as well as their open-ended nature. What do you think?

In any event it pays to remember this truism from the world of aviation: “When a flight is proceeding incredibly well, something was forgotten.” For more wisdom consider these other flying truisms.

Of course to the purist PM’s out there who might be offended by such a simple comparison, here are the formal PMI PMBOK definitions:

Project. A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.

Program. A group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually. Programs may include elements of related work outside of the scope of the discrete projects in the program.

Think about it when considering all of parallel initiatives you or your customer is trying to manage. Maybe is it is time to consider a program to get to grips with the project lifestyle.

I’m happy to take comments, as ever. Here or email me at


Being a big fan of metaphors, I think this one hits the target accurately and precisely. I'm in the Data Governance field, and I have to explain the difference between projects and programs all the time.

I'm going to have to get a big bag of quarters together so I can send you one each time I use this...

Posted by Steve Putman on October 01, 2008 at 07:52 AM CEST #


I do agree to you use a metaphor and comparing flying an aircraft with an airport is a good start. I personally use a different metaphor for the simple reason an airport is a part of an organisation/infrastructure and in theory is infinitive.

A project is a set of activities to meet a set of objectives and is limited in time, resources, scope and money.

A programme exists to realise a vision the objective of the program is not clear but will be shaped along the way by realising projects and define the next step/leap forward. A programme ends when the vision is realised, often when the business benefits are realised

A good metaphor to use, I think, is the difference between the space program to reach the moon and the flight of one of the Apollo’s.

The space program had a vision to have the first man on the moon, with no idea on how, when and against what costs. Each of the flights was a project with a budget a clear goal, e.g. fly around earth, fly around the moon etc etc.

Let me know what you think


Posted by Hans Robbers on October 14, 2008 at 12:19 AM CEST #

Thanks guys
I send a separate email to Steve to authorize free distribution rights for the metaphor....

For me the rights or wrongs of the metaphor can be debated. We use what works for us in any given setting...
The main thing was to find a way to show the difference in simple concepts that business people understand.
Nice contribution though - thanks

Posted by Andrew Sparks on October 14, 2008 at 07:42 AM CEST #

Another thought occurred to me about Hans' comment.

What Hans suggests is an *example* of a program (the US Space Program) whereas I am talking about a *metaphor*.

The idea of the metaphor helps gain insights by directly comparing seemingly unrelated concepts (projects/programs and aircraft/airports) to gain new insights.
Using direct examples is OK as well but sometimes when the concept (e.g. a program) is too complex for folks to get a handle on using a metaphor helps.

Posted by Andrew Sparks on October 20, 2008 at 08:21 AM CEST #

I like your metaphor!!

At first I was thinking that it was not broad enough, that a program was more than just an airport. That a program included all the airspace through which all those airplanes flew to get to the airport. But that is unnecessarily broad.

If you take the concept of a group of projects (airplanes) that have set of common objectives (arriving at a specific airport as planned and budgeted) that are managed in a coordinated way (air traffic controllers at the airport), then is fits. The program (group of airplanes) still has boundaries and scope (the airport, at a given time). The airplanes have a final destination in common (common set of objectives), that must be managed in a coordinated fashion so that they meet the needs of their customers (land safely, arrive on time, within budget).

Just some thoughts or possibly ramblings....

Posted by Baird Miller on October 21, 2008 at 11:56 AM CEST #

There's two aspects to the airport/airplane debate. One is within the PM community, this may or may not sit well. Although it really sits well with me. However I can understand other PM's taking differing views.

The real value of the image is to those less experienced or those stakeholders who only have exposure to programme culture. Therefore it's an image they can hopefully relate too.

Which does raise another thread. The difference from exposure to experience. I see lot of content from the community expressing experience, however what they are really expressing is exposure.

Posted by John on November 07, 2008 at 03:12 AM CET #

Hi Andrew..
the difference b/w Project and program is well said.
if you can add Portfolio management to the metaphor it will be great to see all of them together.

Posted by Nagabhushanam on November 04, 2010 at 12:48 AM CET #

I like the airplane metaphor, but I think Hans has mentioned an important distinction. To me, an airplane being the project and the airport being the program works well to explain a structural comparison, but as far as what is actually happening within the structure, there is one discontinuity - the airplane is a daily operation. Day in and day out, the airplane does its job, perhaps flying to different places, but nevertheless, it is simply flying and nothing more. The airport also simply runs. Now, I think a project would be more like the promotion of vacation packages or the expansion of the airline into another destination - a unique endeavor having an end in mind. The program would be more along the lines of a combination of these two projects, perhaps the expansion of the airline into destinations offering vacation packages. The program doesn't manage the project work, but it assures that the work is inputted into the right place.

Again, as you said, it is just a metaphor, and not a parable. We don't have to meaning to the lady who hands out peanuts. I just thought it would be important to note the difference between projects and regular operations.

Posted by guest on July 27, 2011 at 04:30 PM CEST #

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Projects have become a lifestyle in business. Lets get good at them.


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