DALLAS: A&E made Southwest Airlines a PR offer it couldn't resist: a starring role in a realty TV show.
The cable channel is teaming with Granada Productions on an American version of Airline. Granada has produced six seasons of Airline in the UK for ITV focusing on easyJet, a low-cost British carrier similar to Southwest.
A&E considered several airlines before settling on Southwest, which it chose based on its customer service, strong brand, and profitability.
"We thought brand to brand, it would be a good fit," said A&E's program publicity manager Gina Nocero.
Southwest, however, didn't bite immediately. Its research included talking with communications executives at easyJet and at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, which had been the subject of a six-part ABC documentary.
Satisfied that the programs had been boons to those organizations, Southwest's PR staff presented the plan to president and COO Colleen Barrett. She saw the opportunity as a calculated risk, but a great chance to show off Southwest's commitment to customer service, Rutherford added.
"It's a pretty unfiltered look at how an airline operates," Rutherford said.
Barrett was less concerned about employees being caught on film having bad days than about how the cameras might alter their behavior. Memos she sent to employees via intranet instructed them to conduct business as usual.
"We were not preparing for this in any way that might seem artificial," Rutherford said.
In negotiating the deal with the producers, Southwest did not set limits on program content beyond addressing security concerns.
"We have the blessing of the Transportation Security Administration," Rutherford said.
A&E and Granada are producing 10 half-hour episodes, scheduled to debut in the first quarter of 2004.
The story lines will involve spontaneous situations that occur in the terminals, interesting Southwest employees, and passengers' unusual travel stories. Southwest added a link on its home page last month soliciting such tales.
PR representatives from Southwest's Dallas headquarters were dispatched to Los Angeles when filming began in June at LAX. They were then sent to Chicago, where shooting has just begun at Midway Airport.