By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
6:00 AM EDT, May 24, 2012
The description at the TLC website for "On the Fly" gives a pretty good sense of the up-with-Southwest-Airlines tone that permeates this reality TV series premiering at 9 p.m. Thursday.
"On the Fly gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the large-scale operation and personal customer stories at Southwest Airlines," the promotional copy says.
"Each episode introduces viewers to Southwest Airlines employees who must think on their feet as they cope with weather delays, irate passengers, and more surprising situations. On the Fly offers a look at the dramatic and uplifting moments that occur while flying the largest domestic airline in the U.S."
Let's be honest: For most of us, flying is hell since 9/11. In my book, there is nothing "uplifting" about it, and "dramatic" moments are something I'd rather not have.
But some area viewers might like the series simply because BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, which is one of Southwest's largest markets, plays a prominent role. The pilot episode features BWI along with airports in Denver and New Orleans. Although even here, I have to say, I have trouble telling one airport from the other without the help of the underlines listing the name of the airport as each scene opens.
At each location, we meet customers with issues and customer service representatives who are uniformly patient, competent, friendly and understanding in helping the customers out. An elderly Texan in a wheelchair misses her flight and starts raising what in Texas might be referred to as holy hell. She is yelling at the Southwest employees.
"I want out of this place right now," she screams at one point, as a customer service rep tries to explain the situation to her.
The missed flight is not their fault -- it's hers. But the Southwest employees stoically take the unreasonable abuse and still make a special effort to find another flight for her. It ultimately involves a Southwest employee racing against the clock to push her in her wheelchair from one end of the airport to the other to make a new, alternate flight.
As she boards, she almost apologizes -- almost.
And then there is the guy who had too much to drink at a bar at BWI. A Southwest rep has to decide whether he is too drunk to be allowed on a plane.
As she courteously and professionally seeks to ascertain whether he should be allowed to fly, he comes onto her. I would describe it as sexual harassment. At one point, when he grabs her arm and kisses her hand, I would argue that he is pushing into the realm of sexual assault.
She remains upbeat while doing everything she can to professionally do her job and discourage his actions.
As harsh as her assessment of the guy ever gets: "He's a live one."
There's also a storyline featuring a woman who tries to sneak her little dog, Lefty, on the plane with her. The folks at Southwest are firm but nice in telling her Lefty cannot fly free.
But the pilot ultimately goes beyond saying what a nice and helpful airline Southwest is.
We also meet one flight attendant whose boyfriend sneaks on her plane in a disguise and "surprises" her with an engagement ring in-flight.
The engagement scenario is skillfully produced and has a nice feel to it -- until you stop and think about how much artifice is involved in the staging of such "reality" moments. They range from having the cameras in place to making sure the young man gets down on his knee in the aisle of the plane at a point where the lighting is just right.
The larger message here is that Southwest isn't just a helpful, happy family kind of place; Southwest flights are places where magic can happen -- kind of like Disney World.
This is not the first time Southwest Airlines has gone the reality TV route. In 2004 and 2005, it was featured in the A&E series "Airline."
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