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.
:  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.”

3 thoughts on “Airline

  1. just pixels says:

    One observation from somewhere I read is how well-behaved people actually are … at least in the developed world. Although most of the managers you watched spent most of their time coping with a few jerks, thousands of other passengers went through the airport, the boarding, and all the rest without so much as an unkind word for, well, anyone.

    For example, Boston has 2,000 police officers for a population of almost 600,000; one officer for every 3,000 people. That doesn’t mean most people are polite, but it does mean that by a wide margin most people are well-behaved, at least legally.

  2. just pixels says:

    i am, as usual, math impaired – it’s one officer for every 300 people. All of a sudden Boston seems pretty awful.

  3. Ben says:

    The same logic holds for the police as for the airline, though.

    I’ve had direct contact with the Boston Police Department only twice in the past three years: once when they came looking for someone who used to live in my building, and again when I asked a nearby officer about crossing the Boston Marathon route as the race wrapped up.

    Both interactions took no longer than five minutes. If the whole city were like that, a mere 14 officers could police the entire city, working standard 40-hour weeks.

    The other 1,986 officers, then, exist to police the small subset of the population that requires far more attention than a quick conversation.

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