Second season of A&E, Southwest collaboration 'Airline' begins

Wednesday, July 7, 2004

LINTHICUM, Md. -- The blond woman at the check-in counter is crying, tears streaking her cheeks. She has too many bills, she explains. She is supporting her brother, her family. She's just a bus driver. She's stressed, she says, not drunk. Across from her, the man in the Southwest Airlines uniform leans in, nods sympathetically. He understands life can be hard. He understands she is upset.

He's still not going to let her get on the plane.

From across the walkway in Terminal B at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, a camera crew slowly closes in on the scene. It's a slow but steady creep, ever watchful to see what kind of reaction it might get. Twenty feet away, 10, five. Soon, it is right there in the woman's face, the sound boom over her head, the film rolling. She's on her cell phone now, spelling out her tale of woe to someone else.

Suddenly, the Southwest employee -- customer service supervisor Christopher Marr -- turns to the camera and starts explaining the situation. The woman, he reports, was acting strangely in the boarding area. She smells of alcohol and may or may not be intoxicated. Airlines, he explains, are bound by FAA rules to deny boarding to any passenger who appears to be intoxicated.

Overhearing this, the woman pulls away from her phone conversation for a moment and breaks in: "No, I'm not intoxicated," she insists to the camera, which does not seem to strike her as either odd or intrusive. Marr continues with his explanation. The camera keeps rolling. For a random Monday afternoon, this is good stuff.

Filming it allAs hordes of summer travelers make their way through BWI, some -- the angry, the drunk, the stinky, the outrageous -- may find themselves caught on camera as the A&E Network films footage for its airport-based reality show, "Airline," which returned for its second season Monday night. Produced with the cooperation of Southwest, the first season averaged 1 million viewers per episode and was filmed at Los Angeles International Airport and Chicago's Midway. The network expanded to BWI this year.

Since early April, a five-person crew -- producer Scott Mislan, cameraman James "Jamie" Hall, sound recordist Nicole Phillips, production assistant Matt Cohn and Southwest liaison Bob McMahon -- has been prowling BWI, hoping to capture some of the more interesting day-to-day realities of airline travel. They work 10-hour shifts five days a week, taking off Tuesdays and Wednesdays -- generally the lightest travel days.

Previous episodes have featured everything from an elderly man with Alzheimer's who soils himself at the gate -- a Southwest employee graciously assists his distraught wife in changing him -- to a guy who looks like a mountain man and reeks so badly that he is given new clothing and deodorant, and is filmed washing himself at an airport bathroom sink. There are the ranters who are denied boarding for rudeness to staff, the "customers of size" who are told they need to buy a second ticket and, of course, the drinkers who are sent to dry out. All of them, for one reason or another, agreed to let their stories be aired, warts and all.

Fifteen minutes"I think everybody in the television industry is amazed at people's desire to have their 15 minutes of fame," says Nancy Dubuc, vice president of documentary programming and development at A&E Network.

Take the bus driver, for example. After Marr rebooks her on a later flight -- four hours later -- and gently suggests she stay away from the alcohol in the interim, she moves down to the end of the terminal and leans against the wall, still spilling her emotional tale into her cell phone. Now it's time for Cohn to do his essential job: to get the passenger to sign a waiver allowing the network to use the footage any way it wants.

For the most part, Mislan says, the passengers fall into two categories: "ones who definitely want their 15 minutes, and others who want nothing to do with you." In the latter case, the crew simply moves on.

So far at BWI, the crew has filmed a hodgepodge of story lines, including a woman arriving at BWI on a flight from her native Ghana was scheduled to connect on a Southwest flight to Raleigh-Durham, N.C. Coming to America for the first time to visit her daughter, who was due to give birth to her first child, the woman had packed ingredients for a traditional soup she planned to make. What kind of ingredients? Well, fish, for one thing. Fish that, by the time they reached the Southwest cargo hold, were stinking and covered in maggots that had started crawling out of the seams of her suitcase.

"That was an 'A' story line," says Mislan.

It is up to the network producers to choose which stories will be spliced into the show, which tends to go back and forth between the different airports.

Mislan knows for certain that one of his story lines will be included in the first episode of the new season: In it, baggage handler Eric DeCosmo takes advantage of the presence of a camera crew to propose to his reality-TV-loving girlfriend, Christy Goad, while she is checking travelers in at one of the gates.

"Yes, I admit, I love reality TV," says Goad, who lives with DeCosmo in Glen Burnie, Md. "I can't even keep up with it. I love''Wedding Story,' 'Baby Story.' I watch 'Perfect Proposal' whenever I can. So for him to do it that way really was perfect."

Southwest customer service supervisors Marr and Nicholas Hadeed are miked for their entire shifts; when the A&E crew hears something interesting happening, they beat a fast path to the scene. Some days, the crew will go the entire shift and find absolutely nothing to film. Other days, such as a recent Monday, they get lucky: They stumble upon not one, but two potentially usable story lines.

In addition to catching Ware's tears on tape, the crew just happens to be by the ticket counter when Hadeed finds himself in possession of two children -- one 10, one 12 -- who flew into BWI unaccompanied. Just old enough to travel without special supervision, the siblings have been taking a renegade tour of the airport, riding escalators and elevators, running through the terminals. Caught by a United flight attendant, the two were in possession of Southwest baggage claim tickets and have been turned over to Hadeed for safekeeping.

While he's clucking at them, the kids see the cameras and immediately start mugging, more than happy to tell their tale. In mid-stream, their frazzled mom arrives. The father put the kids -- who were coming to spend the summer with her in Williamsburg, Va. -- on the plane in Arizona, and the mom, Jenny Stanley, got held up at security while the plane landed several minutes early.

Once it's all straightened out, she, too, agrees to sign the waiver. But not without a little pang of worry.

"The kids are going to love it," Stanley says, then adds with a groan: "Oh, and their dad will really love it. He's going to be really happy about this."

The kids couldn't care less. They're glowing. They've scored, big time. Not even teenagers yet, and they've already gotten their 15 minutes of fame.

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