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Southwest, TLC team up for reality TV project

Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite for reality shows. They also seem to be endlessly fascinated with the good, the bad and the ugly about their flight experiences.

Now, it seems, the two will be mixed for the television public – again.

TLC, the television network that is part of Discovery Communications, announced Wednesday that it is starting production on a new series that will take viewers behind the scenes of the modern air travel experience.

The network has ordered 13 half-hour episodes, which will be produced by ITV Studios America and based on unprecedented access to Southwest Airlines.

“We were interested in working with Southwest,” said Dustin P. Smith, vice president of communications for TLC, “as it is one of the largest airlines in the country and is known for its exuberant corporate culture and for having refreshing and personal customer service that is regarded as unique in the industry.” Those qualities, combined with an in-depth look at the hurdles of traveling, would create a dynamic show, he said.

Ashley Dillon, a spokesperson for Southwest Airlines, said the airline was chosen also because of its tradition of transparency, which relies heavily on the use of social media, blogs and other media.

“We’re always telling people what we’re doing behind the scenes. Why not put that on TV?” she said “That makes us an attractive airline for a TV show.”

Southwest’s daily operations were previously the subject of a television series in 2004-2005 when “Airline” ran for three seasons on A&E.

“Customers loved that show,” Dillon said. “Airline”aired on Monday nights, and on Tuesday mornings there would be a surge of people applying for jobs, as the show reflected the important role that employees played at the airline, Dillon said. And even six and seven years later, employees featured on the show are stopped at airports by travelers seeking autographs.

“We found people loved behind-the-scenes views.” Most travelers, she said, do not know about all the challenges of flight – from getting all the bags boarded to landing safely.

The new series “will be fresh and new and different,” Dillon said. The earlier show focused on customer service at the airport, but the current production will be broader and will include many more employees: maintenance workers, providers of drink and food, pilots as well as attendants.

“Employees will be the storytellers,” she said.

The series will also feature stories of real travelers – beginning with the purchase of tickets at their homes and continuing for the duration of their journeys.   

What’s the appeal of a show based on such a mundane occurrence?

“Airlines are a fascinating business,” said Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and co-founder of the Atmosphere Research Group, a market research company. “It's an industry known for attracting 'characters' in certain roles, especially like pilots and flight attendants. Non-airline employees see the industry as somewhat 'glamorous' thanks to the ability to see so much of the U.S. (and abroad) either for free or on deep discounts. Some mistakenly believe that there is a lot of hanky-panky on crew layovers, though that couldn't be further from the truth.”

Harteveldt said other recent shows to profile the industry include "Fly Girls", a series that “capitalized on the popularity of reality shows, presented against the background of a fun, young, hip airline like Virgin,” and “Pan Am,” “a scripted show that is trying to capitalize on the popularity of the 'go-go' time frame of the 1960s when the economy was stronger and so much was new and possible. It's a clear rip-off of 'Mad Men,' and a bad one at that.”

Harteveldt said he was not surprised that Southwest was chosen as the focus of the TLC series.

“Southwest is a well-known national airline with a reputation for friendly, and a bit off-beat, customer service,” he said. In addition, Southwest is careful about the people it hires, and has a distinct corporate culture which adds to the appeal. “Its employees are generally happy to work there, so you're less likely to hear negative comments from employees.”

A title for the series and a firm date for the premiere have not yet been set, but it is expected to debut sometime in the spring of 2012, Dillon said.

Production is scheduled to begin this coming weekend at Baltimore Washington International Airport and Denver International Airport, with additional airports to be added in coming weeks.

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