The best airport ob-docs

As ITV goes behind the scenes at Heathrow, Tim Glanfield pays tribute to an ob-doc subject that always flies

I have a confession to make – I’m a secret airport ob doc addict. 


It’s a little-known condition with no cure. Its main symptoms are relentless trawling of “replay” channels on Sky for anything with “air” in the title, followed by extensive lobbying of channel executives to make new shows about airports, planes and associated trades.  

It all began back in 1996 when the BBC first broadcast Airport. Nearly two decades later, my search for the ultimate airside fix continues.  

So as the excellent ITV nod to the genre, Britain’s Busiest Airport – Heathrow, continues, I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite series that show the airport warts and all…

Airport (1996-2008)

The daddy of all airport ob docs (and lends a lot to the new ITV show), unlike most of its imitators Airport was based at one of the busiest and most important air hubs in the world – London Heathrow. During its 12-year tenure, the show featured guest appearances from luminaries as diverse as the Queen, Princess Diana, Bob Geldof, Bill Clinton and Pamela Anderson.  

Despite featuring an array of regular contributors, from check-in staff to vets, security guards to air stewards, Airport will be remembered by most folk for its larger than life break-out star, a certain Jeremy Spake – an Aeroflot manager with so much charisma, he now has his own website.

Airline (1998-2006)

Another programme from the golden age of air travel (music and television) – the 1990s – Airline is a pretty shameless attempt to cash in on Airport’s success. However, in doing this (rather badly), the producers unwittingly created an airport classic, in the first series heavily promoting Britannia Airways – but remembered by most for its connection with Easyjet.

Featuring regular “facetime” from one-time Easyjet top dog Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the programme was so good Tony Robinson lent his voice talents to (most of) it. Primarily set at Easyjet’s Luton Airport hub, Airline also enjoyed extended contributions from Liverpool, Bristol and, at times, Belfast airports. 

Stars worth looking out for include the elusive Alan Derbyshire as well as Jane Boulton and Leo Jones.

It’s also worth noting, this show was SO good, it got an American spin-off.

Nothing to Declare aka Border Security: Australia’s Front Line (2004-present)

This Australian show takes a slightly different slant on the airport theme, focusing on the people who defend the country’s borders rather than those who assist passengers with getting from A to B. Think snakes in poster tubes and forbidden fruits (literally) being smuggled in the strangest ways.

Unlike many of its competitors, this show is not about big personalities – it’s about big government. By the end of the show you’ll be gagging to see another crook sent down for daring to defy the good people of Border Control.   

Remarkably good hangover viewing, this show is on air relentlessly throughout weekend afternoons on various digital channels.  Do give it a try.

Inside Gatwick (2011)

As you would expect from the title, this programme focused on all things West Sussex.  

Once one of BAA’s flagship British airports, Gatwick is now under new management – and it is the change that these new bosses have put into action that frames the show. 

A warts and all documentary, Inside Gatwick walked a fine line between consumer and business focus – offering insight into the hopes, dreams and minds of an eclectic bunch of executives, ancillary workers and passengers.

With episodes at an hour apiece, you had to be in a serious mood for aviation to get through this. But those who did were rewarded.

Stansted: The inside story (2010)

This Channel 5 show has a special place in my heart because it’s all about the Essex airport in the shadow of which I grew up.  

What I might describe as an ob doc 2.0, the show was shot in HD (still pretty exciting stuff at the time) and didn’t mind flaunting its glossiness with elongated scenes of planes taking off, landing and taxiing. 

Unlike Airport, or some of the more traditional shows in its genre, the programme focused on one story at a time – one week following the police, another a pilot. It was an in-depth show, but framed by Channel 5 sensibilities around the edges. 

Channel 5 won’t let us embed this, but click here for episode one

The secret life of the airport (2009)

A masterful three-part BBC4 documentary charting the development of the airport from the earliest days of flight, through the wars, the jet age and then on to the economy airline boom of the modern day.  

It’s not an ob doc – but this is an airport series you would be a fool to miss…