What was the point of Airport Live?

What did the live element add to the documentary about Heathrow Airport, asks David Crawford

Firstly a frank admission, which is as sure to draw criticism as the chicken shop is to attract drunks on a Friday night: I hardly watched any of Airport Live.


Sure, I caught the first few minutes when the lovely, bubbly Kate Humble introduced us to all the exciting things we could expect over the next hour from her vertiginous perch 600 metres up the air traffic control tower at Heathrow. Then I decided to do something more interesting, like counting the hairs sprouting out of my ears.

To be fair to Kate, she was a last-minute replacement for Dan Snow, who couldn’t present live due to family commitments. I’m certain Dan would rather have not been called away, but professionally I think he had a lucky escape. It’s hard to inject a huge amount of enthusiasm into footage of planes taking off, landing, taking off, landing…

You see, I did switch back later on, to see Kate excitedly tell us that earlier we had seen an air traffic controller clear a plane for take off and now – wait for it – we could see that very plane taking off! The marvels of live television.

As this was live, viewers could also send in questions about the airport’s operation, which Kate put to a rather bored looking air traffic controller. Well, he had every right to look bored, as most of the questions had common sense answers. “What do you do if someone on a plane being kept in a holding pattern above Heathrow is taken seriously ill?”

Rather than answer sarcastically, “Nothing changes the order of the holding pattern, we can’t let sick people interfere with our jobs,” he gave the obvious answer, “Their plane is given priority to land and we try to have medical assistance on hand at the earliest opportunity.”

The real grievance about Airport Live being, well, live is that there could have been a fascinating documentary about Heathrow hidden among all the false excitement of the live pieces.

As ever there was a team of presenters just bursting to try their hand at some of the many daily tasks performed at the airport. Do you really want to watch Dallas Campbell applying markings to the fuselage of a plane? I know my answer.

If only it had taken its lead from the programme that followed it on Tuesday, The Route Masters: Running London’s Roads. Here was a documentary that took the vast subject of the operation to keep traffic moving on London’s complex road system and made it accessible, informative and enjoyable.

Its formula was simple: find the one person who can describe well the complexities of the job, to give you the nuts and bolts of your doc; then find all the characters among the workers who perform the myriad tasks, from cleaning Blackwall Tunnel to filling in potholes and picking up dead foxes, to give you the colour. Job done. 

For Airport Live to work really well, you needed some sense of drama or jeopardy. That’s what live television thrives upon. Will the fledglings survive outside the nest? Will England lose on penalties, again? Will Simon Cowell get a boxful of eggs in his face?

But the one thing you don’t want to see is any sort of drama or jeopardy at one of the world’s busiest airports. Will the engine catch alight? Will the landing gear not open? Will the swarthy bearded man twitching and sweating buckets in economy confirm everyone’s worst fears about racial stereotyping?


I see enough blood and carnage beamed live into my living room during the news. I don’t want the makers of Airport Live to add to it – but without any drama, it’s just planespotting.