Eight years ago, Southwest Airlines was the only airline that would allow cameras into its day-to-day operations for a reality show. That show, "Airline," resulted in big wins in terms of recruitment and revenue
"'Airline' got such a great response," says Ashley Dillon, public relations specialist at Southwest. "We got customers writing in telling us how much they loved it. Employee morale was boosted."
So the company is going for it again. Its new show, "On the Fly," premieres May 24 on TLC. Like last time, Southwest has no editorial control—conflicts are shown warts and all—but Dillon thinks this go-round will have the same positive effect on how people view the airline, particularly in some new markets.
Why a reality show?
When "Airline" went off the air in late 2005, "there was a kind of a lull," Dillon says. Customers still wanted to know what went on behind the scenes.
"That's kind of where our blog started, right after 'Airline' went off the air," she says. "We felt like we filled that void through different blog posts and videos."
In the interim, other networks and production companies have approached Southwest about a similar series, but "we just didn't feel like all the ducks were in a line," Dillon says. But around summer 2011, when TLC and the producers of "On the Fly" approached the airline, she says the communications team felt ready and that the network and producers "had the same vision as us."
"Let's do this crazy thing again," Dillon says.
One big factor is the news in May 2011 that Southwest acquired AirTran Airways.
"As we have acquired AirTran, obviously our company has grown. We have started to enter new markets that don't know Southwest Airlines, Atlanta, for example," she says. "We felt like, what better way than letting the country see who Southwest Airlines is on a primetime slot on TLC?"
Dillon says she hopes the show proves that Southwest hasn't lost its culture as it's grown. It hasn't become some big legacy carrier, she says.
On the air
Camera crews were in three of Southwest's main airports—Chicago Midway, Denver and Baltimore—for about four months, Dillon says. Another crew jumped around to different airports—Tampa and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and New Orleans during Mardi Gras—for a few weeks at a time.
"On the Fly" is different from "Airline" in a few major ways, Dillon says. For one thing, there's no narrator doing voiceovers. Rather, employees tell the story through interviews. They had no on-camera training, Dillon says.
"Really it was just sending out kind of a notice to employees, saying, 'Hey, the cameras are going to be there,'" she says. "If anybody didn't feel comfortable, they weren't forced to be on camera."
A few employees emerged as real naturals, she says, and viewers will see them often on the show.
A big addition is the inclusion of passenger stories. The producers set up a website, myswatrip.com, asking for people to explain a special trip they were planning to take.
"Instead of just filming in the airport, we had customers write in and tell us if they were going on a trip for some unique reason," Dillon says. "We had the website up for about a week, and we had a handful of entries. Then we put something on our Facebook about it, and there were 500 in one day."
In fact, some people just put their story right on Southwest's Facebook page. Dillon says Southwest made sure to direct the show's producers to those posts.
During filming, a crew followed the passengers the producers selected from their homes all the way to their destinations to meet old sweethearts, find their big breaks in Nashville, and so on.
"It's a newer, fresher feel," Dillon says. "We're really pleased with the product."
The only time Southwest could step in and exert control over the show's content would be in the event of an incident that involved the Federal Aviation Administration or National Transportation Safety Board, Dillon says.
"It shows the good and the bad," she says. "Hopefully, when the bad happens, a cancellation or delay or whatever it may be, it does show our employees go above and beyond for our customers."
However, the show won't just be conflict. There are some heartwarming moments, too, such as a wedding proposal on a plane and a fun push-up contest at an airport gate.
As with "Airline," Southwest is hoping for another spike in job applications and general interest. And now, the company's response can be more immediate.
"This time, we have Facebook, Twitter and some of those social channels where people can engage and interact with our employees," Dillon says.
On Thursdays, the day the show airs, and Fridays, the company is planning to have "more hands on deck" to deal with a likely influx of questions and comments via social media, she says.
"We're even thinking of having some of the employees who are in the episodes [answer] tweets for us."
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.