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."
The woman, now identified as Debra Ware, has agreed both to sign the waiver and to give permission for a newspaper photographer to take and print her picture. In keeping with its general policy of not releasing any personal information about its passengers, Southwest will neither identify the passengers on the show by full name nor give out contact information for them; A&E abides by the same rules.
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.
As evidenced in his approach to Ware, Mislan has his tricks for engaging the passenger in the filming process. When Marr turns to the camera and starts to explain the situation, it's a calculated move: Not only does it catch the viewers up on what is taking place, it often prompts the passenger (as it did in this case) to turn to the camera and start speaking as well, insistent on making sure his or her viewpoint is out there.
"When things can be kind of volatile, it starts a conversation," Mislan says. "A lot of times, the customer jumps in and says, 'Wait a minute, that's not what happened,' and then they start getting into it."
Which, of course, is exactly what he hopes to capture on tape. So far at BWI, the crew has filmed a hodgepodge of story lines, including an employee injury that resulted in a hospital visit, and a unique baggage mishap. That latter one is Mislan's favorite: A woman arriving at BWI on a flight from her native Ghana was scheduled to connect on a Southwest flight to Raleigh-Durham. 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. Dead fish. Stinky fish. Fish that, by the time they reached the Southwest cargo hold, were rotted and covered in maggots that had started crawling out of the seams of her suitcase.
"That was an 'A' story line," says Mislan, who likes to rate the clips he sends back to the network. 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. "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."
As with several other reality shows (think "Trading Spaces" or "What Not to Wear"), "Airline" is a copycat of a British reality program of the same name, which has shadowed the no-frills carrier EasyJet for eight seasons. When A&E decided to produce an American version, Southwest seemed like the natural fit -- it was the most recognizable low-cost airline at the time, and it had a reputation for being fun and having character. Persuading the airline to participate, though, was another story.
The show's premise is fraught with peril for Southwest, which has no control over content save for the right to review the film for security purposes. What if one of the employees loses it and is rude to a customer? What if someone just plain screws up?
Add in the fact that the production is a big undertaking for the airline -- which has to provide liaisons to get the crew through security at each airport location and has to monitor which employees have agreed or not agreed to participate -- and it's not shocking that Linda Rutherford, a Southwest public relations executive, admits that she dumped A&E's proposal in the trash as soon as she looked at it.
A few hours later, though, she took it out of the garbage and put it on the corner of her desk, where it remained, untouched, until A&E called to follow up. After much consultation with EasyJet, Southwest President Colleen Barrett gave the go-ahead.
"As we looked into it, all of this was really pointing to the fact that this was an intelligent risk to take and exciting opportunity to put our brand out there where we might not normally be," Rutherford says.
So far, it's mostly been win-win for the airline. Sure, Rutherford admits, there have been a few "teachable moments" -- instances when Southwest might have handled situations better -- in the footage. But employee applications submitted on the airline's Web site spike in the hours after the program airs. There has been a small, incremental increase in use of the Web site to book fares at that time as well. And, for the most part, employees view Southwest's decision to participate as a signal that management is confident they do their jobs well.
The show has made mini-celebrities out of the Southwest employees who emerged as steady characters in the first season; soon to join that list from BWI are the amiable, ever-patient Marr and another customer service supervisor, camera-natural Nicholas Hadeed. ("Ohmigosh!" Hadeed says, preening. "Am I cover guy material? Am I going to be on People magazine's 50 Sexiest Males list? What if I'm the National Enquirer scandal on 'Airline'?") Marr is a little more subdued.
"I don't have cable," he admits, "so I haven't seen a single episode of the first season. But I'm getting cable now. Actually, I'm worried -- everybody in the company is going to see this, including my bosses."
Both Marr and Hadeed are miked for their entire shifts; when the crew hears something interesting happening, they beat a fast path to the scene. Some days, the crew will go the entire 10- or 12-hour 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 kids -- 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, now totally confused. It turns out the father put the kids -- who were coming to spend the summer with her in Williamsburg -- on the plane in Arizona, and the mom, Jenny Stanley, had special clearance to meet them at the gate, but 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. Exultant. They've scored, big time. Not even teenagers yet, and they've already gotten their 15 minutes of fame.