`Airline' reality TV at BWI

Cable: A video crew roams the airport to expose Southwest Airlines and the adventures of passengers and employees.

September 03, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

On your average day, not a lot of Southwest Airlines' passengers are particularly unruly, unkempt, drunk or romantic - in other words, hardly worthy of a reality TV show.

But consider the material cobbled from five 10-hour days' worth of video a week, shot at Los Angeles and Chicago airports over six months, and you might find some Idols and Survivors and even a little Fear Factor.

With a third crew added at Southwest's third-busiest hub, Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Airline, the A&E Network's reality show about Southwest, had enough for a second season. And several weeks into the series, which debuted July 5, it has featured plenty of people that other passengers would, no doubt, want to vote off the plane.

The half-hour show airs at 10 p.m. Mondays, and gives the Dallas-based low-fare airline a chance to show 85 million viewers at home how the pressure can get ear-popping before the planes even leave the tarmac and how Southwest agents help their employer earn the ticker symbol "LUV."

"We figured out we're going to spend 1,800 hours in the airport for 13 hours of show in 26 episodes, less the commercials, plus crews in Los Angeles and Chicago are doing the same thing," said Scott Mislan, the Baltimore crew's producer/director.

It's not exactly the sour underbelly of a seemingly sunny airline. And most travelers have witnessed, perhaps even become, troublemakers when the airplane is late, overbooked or caked in ice. But this is everyone's chance to eavesdrop on the best of the worst-case scenarios.

The film crew views it this way: They have to monitor 167 flights a day with up to 137 passengers each to find the one compelling story. That's 22,879 people, according to Mislan's math - and he says he does a lot of math to keep himself alert as 22,878 uncompelling people board their flights.

Consider at BWI this season: the woman who wanted to take a puppy on the plane (not allowed), the Southwest worker who proposed marriage to another Southwest worker at Gate 17 (she was surprised) and a woman who packed less-than-fresh dried fish in her luggage at home in Africa (thankfully, this isn't "smell-o-vision," crew members say).

But those stories are relatively rare. And some analysts wonder why the airline would want to put itself or some of these passengers on the airwaves, never mind why the passengers would sign off.

Southwest was doing just fine before A&E came along. The airline has had little turbulence in its 33-year history, consistently bringing in profit in an otherwise downtrodden industry. It earned $139 million on $3.2 billion in sales in the first half of the year.

One analyst said the popular Southwest could be inviting people to complain about little things such as a lack of in-flight food, movies and assigned seats. Mostly, though, he wasn't sure it would make good TV.

"I don't know why they would do it," said Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc., a Port Washington, N.Y., airline industry analysis and consulting firm. "Having worked in the business, I don't know why anyone would want to watch it. But if they're bottling it and putting it into 22-minute segments, it must be interesting to someone."

James B. Weaver III, professor of communication and psychology at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, said reality television can be gripping. In general, viewers find humor and drama in watching people react to different situations, and they like the uncertainty of an unscripted outcome. In the case of Airline, many viewers can relate because they've been in the situation or witnessed it.

"When you're a passenger you can't really do much," he said. "Now, we can at least sit at home in our easy chair and laugh at them, or with them."

As for Southwest, Weaver said, the show provides free weekly television promotion and more when the media write or talk about it.

Linda Rutherford, a Southwest spokeswoman, said the show garners 1.5 million to 2 million viewers a week, a hefty number for a summer cable show. Many of the viewers are young and many are women, known as the family travel planners. "It's publicity we couldn't afford to pay for," she said.

To Bob McMahon, a Southwest public relations official from Dallas assigned to assist the film crew in Baltimore, it's a matter of showing how hard the job can be and how hard employees work.

The workers go through training to deal with potential scenarios. But when it comes to filming, McMahon doesn't interfere.

"You can't train for every scenario," he said. "What happens, happens. I can cringe, I can smile, but I can't change anything."

Maybe passengers will be more polite, more understanding, McMahon said. Maybe they'll want to work there.

Spike in applications

Southwest reports that on Mondays and Tuesdays, just after the show airs, triple the average 150 to 180 job applications are filed online. (There's also a small uptick in flight reservations.)

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