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'On the Fly' takes viewers behind the scenes with Southwest Airlines

TLC/George Lange

Southwest Airlines employees, from left: Captain Armin Irvani, Rose Dunn, Joshua Pumphrey and Julia Bell are featured in the new TLC series, "On the Fly."

With Memorial Day weekend almost upon us, kicking off the summer vacation season, travelers may want to check out a new show for a taste of what hurdles could be ahead.

"On the Fly," a new reality series that takes viewers behind the scenes of modern air travel, is scheduled to premiere at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on Thursday, May 24, on TLC, the television network that is part of Discovery Communications.


The series, based on unprecedented access to Southwest Airlines and taped at 11 airports across the country, details many aspects of the flying experience — from buying tickets to loading luggage to landing safely — and features both everyday and unique encounters with travelers as well as airline employees.

Why would people be interested in watching what many consider a necessary but often unpleasant experience?

“It’s great to eavesdrop,” said Howard Lee, senior vice present of production & development for TLC. “Airports are complete microcosms, and each of them has stories and frustrations,” he said. “They are incredibly relatable. We were able to capture that.” 

The two first episodes, “Delayed and Enraged” and “I Want to Leave This Place,” which will both air on Thursday, switch back and forth between several airports and reveal both visceral and upbeat encounters: some very angry passengers with no-holds-barred venting about delays and missed flights (the wrath is often not sugarcoated, so beware of some colorful language); how customer service representatives deal with challenging situations, like a passenger who has a mysteriously bad body odor or another who may have been drinking a little too much before boarding.

Both episodes include touching and uplifting stories: a college student who attempts to fly with his pet fish (he claims he managed to get it through security) and a young man, flying in disguise to avoid the notice of his flight attendant girlfriend, so he can surprise her midflight with a marriage proposal.

Customers and airline personnel come across as real and unedited.

“I have the most-hated job here,” said an employee who works in the lost and damaged baggage area. “I grew up in a family of five, so there’s always someone screaming at someone,” another worker said, but with a smile. Crystal, a young customer service agent at the Denver airport, explained why she often likes to wear a flower in her hair: people are a little bit nicer when she does.

Do things like this actually happen?

Yes, said Lee, the TLC executive. At the airports where shooting took place, Southwest employees were all notified in advance. Customers were taped as events naturally occurred; their permissions were secured after the taping. No one appeared without authorization, and nothing was staged, he said.

Lee said the success of the stories that were captured on tape was due to the broad access by Southwest, an airline that is widely regarded for it distinct corporate culture and customer service.

Daily operations at Southwest were previously the subject of television series in 2004-2005 when “Airline” ran for three seasons on A&E. The earlier show focused predominately on customer service at the airport, but the new production will be broader and will include many more employees: maintenance workers, providers of drink and food, pilots and flight attendants.

“I applaud Southwest for their willingness to offer transparency into what goes on behind the scenes to fly people to so many destinations,” said Sharr Prohaska, clinical associate professor, Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University. “Through educating the public, Southwest may create even a greater appreciation for why they have maintained such an outstanding reputation” with travelers.

“What a great idea — a reality show that puts the 'real' into focus,” Prohaska said.

Dustin P. Smith, vice president of communications for TLC, said all 13 episodes have been shot and some are currently in post production, but it was too early to know if the series will be renewed. The series, produced for TLC by ITV Studios America, is scheduled to run through July 12.

Readers can take an early sneak peak online at TLC.com/OnTheFly

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