If you enjoy the kind of reality show that actually feels real, then Airline (A&E, Mondays at 10 p.m.), about people who work for Southwest Airlines, may be for you. Me, I never want to fly Southwest again, or watch any more episodes of this program: It’s like having an airport lounge filled with rude, egotistical, badly dressed people in your living room, along with their guards. They come in all sizes — Large, Extra Large, and Gargantuan are particularly popular — and they look like giant babies. They’re Southwest customers. They’re Southwest employees. They’re Americans. They’re us. And it’s horrible.
According to A&E’s press release, Airline’s opening episode, which aired January 5 (there will be 18 episodes in all, God help us) featured “a diverse and astonishing range of stories.” Hmm. Well, there were a few storylines, it’s true. One was about a drunk guy at LAX who was (a) not coherent, (b) not intelligent, (c) not interesting and (d) not getting on the plane. Another was about stormy weather causing delays at Chicago’s Midway airport. I think someone had a problem with their luggage, too. The ratings must be through the roof. If Southwest thought they were giving themselves a free infomercial here, they made a bad mistake. Some of the customers may be obnoxious, but the Southwest employees, with their pseudo-folksy friendliness and hideous uniforms, are equally annoying.
Personally, I don’t trust the makers of reality programs, including this one. If Albert Einstein were standing at the ticket counter, they’d talk to the person standing next to him — you know, the one chewing gum with his baseball cap on backward. In this case they found a guy who was too fat to fit into one seat, and not too bright either. (In Southwest code, he’s a COS — customer of size.) They also dug up a borderline homeless person who smelled too much to be allowed on the plane. Actually, this fellow, who sported an old-style beard of the kind a Russian tsar might have worn, was the only dignified person in the episode. To be fair, the Southwest crew treated him tactfully and well, but I wondered how much he really stank. Was his odor, for instance, any more powerful than that of certain Parisians during last August’s heat wave? (I was there, and let’s just say they worry less about these things, and also have no air conditioning.) Did he smell any worse than the average American would have 100 years ago? Or are there a lot of people now who shower five times a day and can’t bear any human smell at all? Just a question.
In the second episode the Southwest crew really showed their stuff. Flight attendants Sam and Janie “entertained” their passengers, or prisoners, by clowning around over the P.A. system on a flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. (I think I once experienced something similar on a Southwest flight myself, and immediately pulled a blanket over my head.) Then they announced a competition — whoever could guess the combined age of the three flight attendants would receive a prize! They also sang “Happy Birthday” to a 70-year-old man, and dragged him to the front of the plane to receive his gifts. These included a box of Kleenex, some peanuts, a coloring book, and several rolls of toilet paper. Referring to the last item, Sam said: “You know what happens when you get to be 70, sir.”
Somehow the man, who still has his hair and looks unusually sprightly for his age, managed to laugh off this unbelievably graceless remark. But the episode served to reveal the deep reservoirs of customer-service contempt hidden behind the professional smiles and “just folks” behavior of the Southwest staff.
Three unavoidable questions arise when you watch this program:
Why would anyone want to make it?
Why would anyone want to watch it?
Why would anyone consent to appear on it?
Beats me. Most of us spend at least a few hours a year in airports, and surely that’s enough. Unlike railway stations, there is little about them that’s alluring, despite Richard Curtis’ best efforts to the contrary in his film Love Actually, where he shows regular Brits smooching at the Departures and Arrivals gates of London’s Heathrow to prove that lurv is all around. Airports can be pleasant, even soothing, when they’re quiet, but of course they never are quiet. (One of the most hauntingly dated lines in 20th-century literature is “The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted” [my italics] from Auden’s poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.”) The romance of flight is gone, and Airline — Zooline would be a better title — is one more nail in its coffin.