A colleague recently recommended the show Airline, and I nearly watched the entire first season in a single sitting. It’s a lot like Cops, but instead of filming police officers as they perform their duties, Airline films customer service agents for Southwest Airlines in several of their focus airports.
It’s good television for the same reasons Cops is. First, we’re watching professionals do their jobs well. Whereas frequent travelers dread the rare events that happen once in a hundred trips, crews see that many flights every day, virtually guaranteeing mayhem.
Second, many of the people they encounter are complete idiots. Some are perfectly pleasant travelers and some are passengers subjected to genuine wrongs that need to be righted, but others are outright jerks who just need to be barred from society. (My favorite so far is the woman who berated the baggage office staff after she failed to recognize her own bag on the carousel.)
Naturally, most encounters on the show result in the passenger threatening to sue the airline, call the police, or at a minimum to “never fly Southwest again!” It’s practically a mantra. After just 20 minutes of watching ticketing agents get berated for enforcing perfectly reasonable policies, I wanted to run over to the airport just to stand patiently in a line like a civilized adult. “You lost my bag? How unfortunate! Could you please call me when it arrives so that I may pick it up? Thank you!” I’d say, for example.
What bothers me most is that in several episodes it’s clear that a single supervisor can spend much of her day interacting with a single problematic customer. Southwest must necessarily employ an army of staff solely to handle this minority of passengers — and it’s absolutely the right thing to do, since without such an army the rest of us would be stuck in line behind them.
What I like best is this exchange between an unjustifiably irate passenger and a customer service agent, which occurs repeatedly:
Angry Passenger: I want to see a manager.
Manager: I am the manager, and I’m the one telling you you’ve missed your flight.
Southwest agreeing to feature in the show is an interesting gamble. Their logo is in virtually every shot, since it covers their planes, uniforms, and even airport walls. Their name is mentioned constantly in natural conversation. Even their routes get some discussion as passengers mention their various destinations. However, the routine flights and happy passengers that surely comprise most of their operation don’t get much screen time. We only see the people so unhappy with their experience they leave swearing off the airline for life.
I say it worked in their favor. Southwest will begin service to Boston’s Logan International Airport on August 16th, and even after seeing six hours of air travel nightmares, I’d like to give them a try.
Only the first season of Airline is out on DVD, but Netflix has it available to “Watch Instantly.”