A Very British Airline

Documentaries about airlines and airports are nothing new, so it’s surprising that British Airways is so late to the party with the fly on the wall offering A Very British Airline. Aiming to show us just what goes on behind the scenes at the world’s biggest airline, the documentary ended up as a three hour corporate video that must have had the BA suits scanning every second of film to ensure they weren’t shown in a bad light or as a laughing stock. In just three, one hour episodes there was no room for detail, so every department was skimmed over in the most perfunctory way and given just enough time to show what a well-oiled machine the company is.

Flight attendant training took up most of the first two episodes and helpfully provided an overview of what the whole company must be like. The main aim of the training seemed to be how any semblance of personality is crushed so that well groomed automatons come out the other end. Get a question wrong in training and you were given a “snapshot”, BA speak for a warning (anyone who has worked for a big corporate company will know they love to make up words for things that already have perfectly good, serviceable words) get four “snapshots” and you were out. You may think that it’s fair to get these for forgetting to lock the cabin doors, but these were handed out for not knowing your Cabernet from your Merlot, being two minutes late for a training session, and not wearing enough lipstick.

We followed new recruit Jodie through her training, and it was obvious from the start she wasn’t going to make it. She sounded slightly common, kept forgetting her hat, didn’t like wine and only applied for the job because it would be exciting to travel the world. She was an individual with a perky personality, and that just wasn’t going to fly with the trainers. The trainees who came through unscathed were all virtually indistinguishable from each other, which you felt was what BA was looking for. Compare this with the pilot training (£84,000 for a 2 year course, no refund for failure) and there was no mention of personal appearance or the dreaded “snapshots”. What was most shocking here was that after completing and paying for your training, your starting salary as a pilot was just over £30,000. I don’t know about you, but I want my pilots well paid so that they’re not sitting in that cockpit filling out applications for other airlines.

Elsewhere, everything at BA works like clockwork. Planes come in for repair and are efficiently dealt with, a delay causes much scurrying in the control room as planes are shuffled about like pieces on a chess board, baggage handlers are all cheery chaps who manage a Heath Robinson style, 11 mile conveyor belt system, and the opening of a new route to China goes off with hardly a hitch. It’s all a quite fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of a big corporation, but you can tell the rough edges have all been carefully removed so that we are seeing the very best of a company for which image is everything. Where were the customers whose baggage had ended up on a different continent? Where were the screaming kids causing havoc in departures? Where were the planes that didn’t get repaired in time? And where were the angry customers? Seriously, we didn’t see one. Even a family of four who turned up to find their plane had already left were placated by a single line from the ground crew and went away happy. I’ve been to airports, on many occasions, and this was like watching something from an alternate universe.

Of course this isn’t to say the whole programme wasn’t without merit. There were some fascinating facts hidden within the corporate gloss. If you die on a plane these days, a member of staff will sit with you for the remainder of the flight (no one said what happens to the person that was originally sitting next to you!) whereas in the old days you would be propped up in your seat, given a drink to hold and a copy of the Daily Mail. If that had happened to me, my family would have been most shocked not about the death, but the fact that I was reading the Daily Mail.

This kind of programme only really works if it shows you things that you never knew about, or if the company has amazing characters that transcend the programme they are in. Watching this, you get the feeling that BA doesn’t want characters. Everyone must conform to the BA way, and there is no room for individuality (a trainee is reprimanded for offering a customer “diet coke or a full fat coke?”) BA is probably very happy with all three of these programmes as they fit its company image – well presented, polite, inoffensive and flying the BA flag with pride. What would be more interesting would be an access all areas documentary that isn’t overseen by the BA suits.

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