IN-FLIGHT MELODRAMA TOUCHES OUR HEARTS, FAILS TO DELIVER POINT

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Holiday air travel tips:

Check baggage so you don't have to deal with crowded overhead storage. Allow time for weather-related delays and cancellations. Arrive at the airport at least one hour before your scheduled departure. And, for your comfort and safety, as well as the comfort and safety of the passengers around you, at 31,000 feet.

Unless you insist, in which case, if we're to believe Leo Burnett Co., Johannesburg, you should fly South African Airways. A multinational 60-second spot documents an incident in which an SAA customer smuggles a non-ticketed passenger aboard in her uterus, then discharges the stowaway midflight.

The spot begins in coach, where the pregnant woman realizes what's happening (How does that preflight litany go? "... in the unlikely event of your water breaking ...") and awakens her dozing husband.

"Honey, I think I'm in labor."

"But you're not due for two months."

(Wincing in pain) "I know."

The next thing that happens, because miracles sometimes do occur, is an immediate business-class upgrade. Then, to uplifting vocals, SAA cabin personnel smilingly assist in bringing a surprisingly plump preemie into the world. Smiles all around as we see a long exterior shot of the plane in flight and hear the cockpit p.a. click on: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. We'd like to welcome a new passenger." Then the tagline: "South African Airways. Africa's warmest welcome."

Uh huh. So what does Air Zimbabwe do, smother the child with a tiny blue pillow?

Sorry, but assisting during a medical emergency does not constitute going the extra mile. While the outcome is legitimately heartwarming, it's hardly a reflection on SAA's particular warmth. The notion that the airline is somehow uniquely humane among international carriers is ludicrous, and therefore the public relations value of relating this tale is dubious at best.

And in some ways unbecoming. By boasting of taking heroic action in a situation leaving no unheroic options, the airline is defying the conventions of humility.

Meanwhile, by seeding the public's already ghastly imagination with a hitherto unconsidered terrifying scenario ("My God, what if it crashes?! What if there's a bomb?! What if we're hijacked?! What if the lady in 22F has twins?!"), it is associating itself with the passenger lack of control that unsettles so many reluctant air travelers.

Yet, for all those objections, it's not hard to see why SAA flew this route. Emerging from apartheid, economic boycotts and general isolation from the world community, South African companies have more reason than most to cultivate a warm, fuzzy, humane image.

The casting of this spot, for instance, is pointedly interracial, and one can just imagine agency debates: "Should we have a black flight attendant doing the actual birthing?" "No, too Mammy-like." "Should the pregnant woman be black?" "No, people would say we're portraying her as irresponsible."

But in this case, viewers will regard implications of moral rectitude regained as, in a word, premature.

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