- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

DALLAS (AP) — The star of the next reality television show isn’t a model, an actor or a beach-dwelling survivor; it’s an airline.

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 tonight on the A&E; network, which plans to air 18 half-hour episodes. A&E; executives say it will make compelling television that travelers can 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 Britain for more than six years.

A&E; wanted an airline with international routes, which Southwest lacks, but other carriers turned down the network. Colleen Barrett, president and chief operating officer of low-cost Southwest, said yes.

“What possessed me?” Miss 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. Miss Barrett agreed to look at tapes of the British show — she pronounced it “OK” — and talked to officials at EasyJet, the London budget carrier featured in the program.

“The EasyJet people told me they felt [the show] literally put them on the map,” Miss 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.

Miss Barrett called the decision to cooperate “a gamble.” She said she wished that the producers had not included a scene that highlighted the airline’s policy of requiring obese passengers to buy two seats.

“There’s not another carrier out there that doesn’t have the same policy,” Miss 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.”

The producers — the U.S. division of Granada PLC, which also produces the British original — spent six months shooting video at Los Angeles International Airport and Chicago’s Midway Airport.

A&E; solicited story ideas from Southwest customers. For the most part, however, 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 was 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.

Miss Dubuc said A&E; now is 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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