The show follows employees of Southwest Airlines as they deal with weather delays, blackouts and passengers who are running late or too drunk or too smelly to board the plane. There are unhappy travelers and a few shouting matches.
Airline begins Monday night on the A&E Network, which plans to air 18 half-hour episodes. A&E executives believe it will make compelling television that travelers can easily grasp.
"When you go to cocktail parties, there is always somebody talking about the long delay on their last flight. Everyone in the room wants to share their travel stories — the love-hate relationship we have with air travel," said Nancy Dubuc, vice president of documentary programming at A&E. "It's that common connection."
A&E officials said they approached all the largest U.S. carriers with the idea for the show, modeled on a program of the same name that has aired in the United Kingdom for more than six years.
A&E wanted an airline with international routes, which Southwest lacks, but other carriers turned the network down. Colleen Barrett, president and chief operating officer of low-cost Southwest, said yes.
"What possessed me?" Barrett said when asked to explain her decision. "When I was first approached I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' "
Southwest's publicity people, however, were excited about the idea. Barrett agreed to look at tapes of the U.K. show — she pronounced it "OK" — and talked to officials at easyJet, the London-based budget carrier featured in the program.
"The easyJet people told me they felt (the show) literally put them on the map," Barrett said. "I started thinking ... it's basically 18 hours of free publicity. You can't buy that kind of PR."
Along with constant shots of Southwest planes and people, the show includes frequent praise for Southwest's customer service — delivered matter-of-factly by the narrator.
At the same time, many of the scenes show unhappy travelers complaining about one thing or another. A few vow never to fly Southwest again, and the show's overall tone doesn't exactly glorify air travel.
A&E and Dallas-based Southwest said the airline didn't pay or receive money for taking part in the show and had no control over content. Southwest, however, was allowed to request a voice-over narration to give "context" to explain treatment of specific customer complaints.
Barrett called the decision to cooperate "a gamble." She acknowledged wishing that the producers had not included a scene that highlighted the airline's policy of requiring very fat passengers to buy two seats.
"There's not another carrier out there that doesn't have the same policy," Barrett said. "But that's real life. We have a pretty darn good reputation as far as customer service satisfaction, so I thought we could handle it."
Barrett said the program might even make passengers behave better by showing them the stress that airline employees face every day.
The producers — the U.S. division of Granada plc, which also produces the U.K. original — spent six months shooting video at Los Angeles International Airport and Chicago's Midway Airport.
A&E solicited story ideas from Southwest customers. In one episode, a passenger let cameras follow him as he proposed to his girlfriend in mid-flight.
For the most part, however, Dubuc said, crews simply showed up at the gate or ticket counter and kept their cameras rolling until something interesting happened. She said none of the scenes were scripted or set up to heighten conflict.
A&E, which lacks a breakout show such as Trading Spaces on basic cable-rival TLC or The Shield on FX, hopes Airline will attract a younger audience, she said.
Dubuc said A&E is now hearing from airlines that turned down the chance to appear on the show — she wouldn't identify them. Neither the network nor Southwest would commit to a second season.
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Not so sure this sounds interesting to me...but it is SOMETHING to watch!