Ready for Takeoff
A&E's Reality Show 'Airline' Taxis Into BWI and Finds Passengers Eager To Get On Board
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2004; Page C01
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; everyone wants a handout. 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 understand 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.
As hordes of holiday travelers make their way through BWI this Fourth of July weekend, 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 returns for its second season Monday night with fresh episodes at 10 and 10:30 p.m. 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 hovering around Terminals B and C at 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 -- Southwest employee Michael Carr 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.
"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 Phoenix-based 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 Matt Cohn, the production assistant, to do his essential job: to get the passenger to sign a waiver allowing the network to use the footage any way it wants.
And so he approaches. Hovers. Offers a cup of water and a few tissues. Waits, as unobtrusively as possible, for her to finish her call. And waits. And waits. Finally she hangs up. Cohn introduces himself, starts the conversation gently. He notices a cross she is wearing around her neck, tries to use it to make a connection. He explains who he is, what the waiver is about, that the show is a documentary. He coaxes her to tell him her story, hoping to appear sympathetic. From several gates down, the rest of the crew watches, anxious.
"You just don't get that -- the crying," Hall says, clearly psyched by the emotion he has captured on tape. "I hope Matt gets it."
Mislan interrupts with a report: "Looking good. I see papers."
It has been only a few minutes, but Cohn is already on his way back down the walkway. As he approaches, he gives the team a thumbs up. He has nailed it.
"I like to find one thing and try to identify with the person a little bit," Cohn says, explaining his technique. In this case, the cross was his in. "She was upset. She just wanted to get home to Phoenix."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Customer service supervisor Nicholas Hadeed finds himself in possession of two kids -- Nick and Marissa Simons, who flew into BWI earlier than scheduled, and nobody was there to pick them up. But their mom eventually found them.
(Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)