An airport is a great setting for a workplace reality show, and Miami International Airport promises to offer all the ingredients you could hope for in such a series, times 10. The numbers that get thrown around include “800 flights daily,” “15,000 people come through every day,” and “36,000 employees.” The most prominent employee in the first few episodes of Airport 24/7: Miami is Lauren Stover, the security chief, who describes the airport as “the gateway to Latin America,” which is her way of saying that the authorities are constantly on the lookout for shipments of hidden drugs. In the first episode, an inspection team breaks out the drug-sniffing dogs and finds $2 million worth of white powder concealed in some tractor parts. “Great news, everyone,” yells a man in uniform to his brothers in arms. “We got some cocaine!”
The same episode that includes that Cheech And Chong moment also makes time for a horrendous car accident and a woman who’s at MIA to surprise her boyfriend, a soldier who’s flying in from Iraq and is secretly planning to propose. (Turns out he had to rebook and he won’t be arriving for hours. “I’m gonna hurt him,” says the prospective fiancée, with a big smile.) At times, Airport 24/7 seems like that rare reality show that suffers from a surfeit of interesting material. Everything has been cut short, even when it might be nice to linger and get a good look at what’s going on, and sometimes the cutting back and forth between melodramatic and mildly comic incidents can give you whiplash. This is a special problem when the show oversells what’s on screen and tries too hard to be super-exciting.
That’s a real problem in next week’s episode, which has a heart attack of an opening montage involving a bunch of guys, all of whom look like Dean Norris, racing around in riot gear and boarding a plane with their guns drawn, as well as a close-up of a little girl screaming in terror. On the soundtrack, a voice is heard saying that a hijacking situation will not end well. The episode actually does feature a terror scare: A plane is delayed for takeoff while the authorities investigate a security breach, which means that somebody “tampered” with a security seal in the crapper. After a thorough investigation, the blame is pinned on a curious little girl and the plane is cleared for takeoff. This demonstration of how proper security protocol works in the face of something that turns out to be minor would be easier to enjoy (without feeling insulted) if it came without the implicit promise of some reality-show 24 action. This is where the hyped-up editing becomes offensive: The footage showing the guys with guns is taken from a sequence showing a training exercise, the mention of a hijacking was just some guy spitballing, and the screaming little girl is reacting to a fight that breaks out in the boarding area, of which the cameraman is never able to get a clear shot. (The opening teaser also includes a shot of a building going up in a fireball, which is presumably taken from a Jerry Bruckheimer movie that was playing on a TV in the lounge.)
Even with all this drama, the same episode finds time for a demented old bat who’s making everyone’s life miserable by complaining that she’s been waiting all night for some help with her lost luggage. She demands coffee. The poor woman trying to pacify tells her they only have Cuban coffee, is that all right? Hell no, comes the answer: “I live in America!” The head of terminal operations, a woman named Dickie Davis, finally calms her down, but whispers to the camera that the general consensus is that she never had any bags to begin with. Many of the people in charge seem to have catchphrase slogans that they’ve either been honing and sharpening since early in their careers or just came up with in preparation for their TV debuts: Davis’ is, “Running an airport is a business.” From what we can see here, it’s likely that nobody would want to do it as a hobby.
Some of the people who get to operate from a vantage point further removed from the center of the action have more charm and humor than the heavy hitters get to display. The star of one of tonight’s episode is “Stretch” Rutledge, a motorcycle cop, whose easygoing demeanor and slightly hyperbolic speech patterns make him a reality-TV natural. (He’s featured in the opening credits, saying “M-I to the A!”) When a man who’s been circling the airport rolls his car over, it’s Stretch who comes up with the most reassuring way possible of describing the accident: The driver, he says, “came to rest with his wheels up.” Another standout is Albert Cordeschi, who works lavatory detail, which he describes as “dumping the doo-doo from the plane” between flights. He says he does not love this part of his job, but he sure is good at it.
Naturally, security and the threat of terrorism play a big part in what goes on at the airport; when Lauren and her people aren’t confronting toilet-based threats, they have to contend with such characters as a man who forgot to remove a gun from his luggage and “some kind of Middle Eastern passenger” who has a knife concealed in his shoe and three different birthdates on his identification. The process can be fascinating, but Airport 24/7 is often more stressful than entertaining to watch, because the people working at MIA appear to be obsessed with the fear that the next 9/11 could break out at any second. It would actually be good to know if that’s an accurate picture of what it’s like to work in a big airport nowadays, or if it’s just the hook that the show is trying to use to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.