Air travel isn't what it used to be, what with the cramped seats, bag-of-peanuts meals, and security pat-downs.
But if you think your last trip was bad, be glad you weren't on the flight where the teen-agers returning from a BMX biking convention in Las Vegas passed around Playboys and ran down the aisles. Or in the terminal with the drunk girls who caused such a ruckus that the airline barred them from boarding.
Thanks to Airline, the new Arts and Entertainment network's docu-soap that films real adventures in flying, you can experience these horrors from the comfort of your couch. And though you might wonder why anyone would want to watch, executives at the network say about a million viewers have tuned in each week since the series began last month.
This season includes 18 half-hour episodes; two run each Monday night, starting at 10 p.m.
"There's a bit of a train wreck aspect to each of these shows," said Patrice Andrews, Airline's supervising producer. "A lot of reality shows are focused on celebrities. What I love about this show is that it shows a common experience that we share."
Based on a successful British show of the same name, Airline documents airport goings-on in real time. The show films on location at Los Angeles International Airport and Chicago's Midway Airport, following Southwest Airlines crews as they deal with passengers who are in turn fretful and irate, helpless and rude.
Passengers sign release forms on the spot giving the film crew permission to use their stories. From the hallways to the tarmac, anything is fair game.
In one episode, Southwest customer-service manager Mike Carr helped an elderly man who had soiled himself. The cameras went into the bathroom with Mike as he helped the man, who suffered from Alzheimer's, change his pants, all the while assuring the man's distressed wife that she had no reason to apologize.
Hours of free publicity
Now, that's service. And though Southwest is taking a risk with this close-up look at its employees, the gamble seems to be paying off. The airline reported a spike in its applications for customer-service jobs immediately after the show began airing.
"The show has given us hours of publicity that we could never afford to go out and buy," said Southwest spokeswoman Christine Turneabe-Connelly, who observed some of the filming.
A&E; and Southwest are in talks to renew the show for another season, possibly expanding filming to other Southwest hubs, including Baltimore. But, she added, Airline could very well have gone the other way.
"Although we have a terrific record for customer service, we do make mistakes, and customers make mistakes as well. Airline travel is not utopia. There was a risk factor."
But when you have employees like Mike Carr, Colleen Bragiel and Yolanda Martin, the risk is pretty low.
In addition to helping the Alzheimer's patient from Albuquerque without so much as a crease in his all-in-a-day's-work smile, Mike (the reps all go by their first names on Airline) coolly handles LAX's drunk, angry passengers. During a recent episode, Yolanda helped country singer Randy Travis navigate Southwest's boarding procedures so he could have a hassle-free trip to Santa Fe, N.M., then proceeded to deal with the drunk girls kicked off their flight to Las Vegas.
And Midway has Colleen, the unflappable customer-service manager who defused the Las Vegas biker situation. Passengers fumed when they were stuck at Midway during last summer's mega-blackout, demanding hotels and refunds. Colleen put some on a bus, and booked hotel rooms for others.
While Southwest's workers come off well, the passengers don't always look so good under the camera's scrutiny. Some are flaky -- like the 40-ish woman curling her hair and changing her clothes in the middle of LAX. Some are forgetful, like the mother who did not bring the birth certificate proving that her larger-than-average toddler was indeed under 2 years old and therefore could fly for free.
Painful to watch
But most of the time, they are downright painful to watch. Does that man really need to swear at the poor baggage-claim clerk at Midway because of a mistake made somewhere else? Doesn't the woman who arrived at the airport late realize it's not Southwest's fault that she missed her flight to San Diego?
It's not like watching an episode of Joe Millionaire or Fear Factor, where you might wince at the silly plot or the ridiculous stunts. Airline is that most real of reality television -- the characters remind us of people we know, places we've been.
Sometimes, they even remind us of ... us.
"I'm just constantly amazed at how rude and inconsiderate some passengers can be, even though I represent a lot of them, and how much abuse the gate and ticket agents have to take," said David Stempler, president of Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group that represents thousands of passengers. "We have met the enemy, and it is us."
Andrews said she's not surprised that people are watching and wincing.
"I used to travel a lot, and I watched a lot of people fly off the handle," said Andrews. "People take for granted what it really takes to keep an airline running. And when it doesn't go right, they get mad at the first person they can mouth off to."
Stempler said he doesn't have high hopes that the show's mirror will encourage passengers to change their behavior. He fears episodes like the near-melee at Midway, when passengers got hotel rooms even though the airline couldn't be blamed for the blackout, shows that bad behavior is often rewarded.
Turneabe-Connelly said it's too early to tell whether Airline might encourage passengers to change their behavior.
"As a human being, one would love to think the best," she said. "But I think traveling is such a different experience than it used to be."
When: Mondays at 10 p.m.; two back-to-back half-hour episodes
Slogan: "We all have our baggage"
Online: www.aetv.com / tv / shows / airline /