A Very British Airline: serious documentary or cheesy souffle?
BBC2's British Airways insight is a bit of a letdown – especially for those who fly in the cheap seats
Fly-on-the-wall documentaries involve risk for both the observed and the observer. Broadcasters seek out tension, drama and incident, while the host is hoping for the bland, unremarkable buzz of good publicity.
In 'A Very British Airline', a three-part series on BBC2, British Airways seems to have got the better side of the bargain. What the BBC is left with is, in part, an extended promotional video for BA's new fleet of aircraft.
No doubt conscious of their non-commercial obligations, the programme-makers spliced in frequent reminders of the challenges facing the airline: EasyJet now flies more people, for example, and Emirates is creaming off premium business travellers.
But that scarcely balanced long stretches in which BA staff talked lovingly and at length about their brand new Airbus A380s – the double-decker beasts for which they’ve laid out £250m each. Ten minutes at least were devoted to the composition of the first-class menus.
If only that level of obsession had been applied to the composition of the programme. As it was, it leapt from subject to subject and often landed awkwardly between genres and styles. Straight documentary gave way to reality drama, and then to corporate video.
The most coherent sequences concerned the airline's cabin crew training programme, which provided human interest and an element of jeopardy: applicants are thrown off the course if they incur more than three “snapshot” penalties for subpar performance.
These sections were also responsible for the programme's rare moments of humour, as trainees struggled to maintain straight faces while enacting ever-more far-fetched scenarios – including, alarmingly, the correct procedure for fitting a catheter.
Sympathising with their plight, one trainer reminded the candidates that day-to-day service may turn out to be more mundane. “Don’t expect your first flight to include a death, a birth, a fire, a decompression, and then to ditch on the way back home,” she said.
Other strands of narrative were disappointingly underdeveloped. Frank van der Post, for example, was little more than a lingering background presence – and yet he, a Dutchman, is responsible for putting Britishness back at the heart of BA’s brand. It would have been interesting to hear more from him, and from other executives charged with responding to the challenges of 21st Century air travel.
The nearest we got to the nitty-gritty of the business is the unglamorous operations room, where tired-looking men (and they are all men) seek out replacement aircraft when faults, diversions or delays wreak havoc on the timetable. It’s an all-too-brief insight into the complexity of the airline, and it ought to increase sympathy for airport staff.
What may invite less sympathy, at least among the majority of passengers, is seeing the attention lavished on those at the front of the plane. Economy passengers barely merited a mention.
In the most revealing moment of the episode, flight attendant candidates were told how much a flexible business class flight to LA and back would cost them – and for a moment they dropped their professional guard. "That's nearly my entire years wages," said one, of the £9,500 fare.
When we eventually saw real passengers who had parted with real money, they were not all that impressed with the much-lauded menus. The soufflé was a “disaster”, they said, and the brioche that came with the chicken liver parfait failed to deliver the requisite crunch.
Teething troubles, the chef said gamely, and perhaps he's right. But they hint at another risk posed by this TV treatment. After three hours of praise for the premium BA experience, expectations among the global elite will be sky high – as may levels of resentment among the mortals in the cheap seats at the back.
'A Very British Airline' continues on Monday at 9pm on BBC2
Holden Frith tweets at twitter.com/holdenfrith