Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Arthur Hailey was perhaps one of the best at taking a small field and populating it with an interesting and diverse cast of characters, a talent quite well exemplified in his bestselling 1968 novel titled Airport. It follows, over the course of seven hours, the staff working at the Lincoln International Airport in the face torrid blizzard, as well as a lone airplane desperately trying to reach its destination.
Table of contents
Arthur Hailey Freezes the Skies
The possibility of flight is perhaps one of the greatest advancements in human history, especially if we’re limiting ourselves to the modern era. Something we could scarcely dream of accomplishing only a couple of hundred years ago has suddenly become a pivotal element enabling our world to function socially, economically, and even militarily. Nevertheless, we’d do well to remember we’re not the true masters of the skies, as the people in Arthur Hailey‘s Airport come to learn rather quickly.
This bestseller of the 1960s (published back in 1968) takes us to Lincoln International Airport outside of Chicago, an imposing structure trusted by the millions passing through every year. Though turbulence is nothing new for the airport staff, they haven’t been prepared for a cataclysm on the scale they’re about to face.
A giant and violent blizzard covers the entire area, forcing the airport to stop its business for the moment, but things aren’t nearly as simple as that. For starters, there remains a lone plane in the sky, desperately trying to reach its journey before falling victim to a storm which only seems to keep on getting stronger.
Besides which, the airport seems to be falling into disarray as panic sets in and different staff members find themselves divided by their opinions on how to handle the situation. As the crisis escalates further and further, thousands of people see their lives endangered, only putting more unwelcome pressure on the ill-equipped workers to deal with it all.
Over the course of seven short hours much is going to happen at the Lincoln International, with a tense and unpredictable human drama playing out between many colourful characters, all about to distinguish themselves in their own ways. With disaster at hand, will they able to find a way to cooperate in spite of their differences, or will human nature send them spiraling towards the tragically logical ending?
A Bygone World Detailed in Airport
Though I myself remember little of it due to my age, the world of air travel was quite different before 9/11, being so radically different from today’s it has become nearly unrecognizable. While I’m not going to dispute the need for proper airport security in modern times, I will say there’s a charm to the bygone era when things were a lot more lax, something which Arthur Hailey captured unbelievably well in his novel.
For those who are unfamiliar with the author’s other works, such as Hotel for instance, I think I should offer you a crash course on the type literature one can expect from Hailey. He has, over his career, distinguished himself for writing stories taking place in secluded locations allowing him to explore specific work industries to his leisure.
Naturally, in Airport he takes an in-depth look at the flight industry from the inside, and while his view into the past no longer mirrors the present, it remains a rather interesting study of an era we’ll very soon come to forget. He takes his time in explaining and showing the dynamics of airport management, from the tasks of various employees to the hierarchy they follow.
There are those who think there are too many downsides to this approach, and I will admit there are moments when Arthur Hailey does appear to briefly veer off the tracks in order to focus his attention on something seemingly inconsequential. If you’re the impatient kind lusting after action and constant forward motion, then I can certainly understand how you’d find this a painful experience.
However, I can only speak for myself and my own experience, and I think this approach serves the novel rather well, imploring us to take our time, to soak in the atmosphere, to close our eyes and imagine ourselves caught in the midst of it all. The little details go a very long way towards making the story feel realistic and believable, and in the second half of Airport the action does start to pick up in its own right.
There was no surer way to lose the confidence of an audience, or a jury, than by letting them think faster than yourself, so that they became aware of what you were going to say before you said it.― Arthur Hailey, Airport
The Fascinating Study of Human Drama
In the first half of the book we spend a good deal of time getting acquainted with all the different characters who are about to make a difference in the coming events. While many of them do appear one-dimensional at first sight, and perhaps even limited in their potential for development, slowly but surely we learn of their inner depths through little storylines dedicated to fleshing them out.
Needless to say, when one has a large enough cast of colourful characters, some will end up pleasing the readers more than others. While I did indeed find some people more enjoyable than others, it never got the point where I wished someone was behaving differently or out of the story entirely. Each and every person served their purpose and had enough depth to remind me they weren’t being depicted in simple black-and-white terms.
What really helps drive the book forward in the second half is, of course, the impending disaster wrought on by the blizzard, and the explosive human drama ensuing from it. One can tell Arthur Hailey was quite a perceptive man, and his understanding of human nature certainly exceeded what many of his peers were capable of.
The incessant conflicts and schemes devised by the characters almost make it feel like an extremely turbulent TV drama, one which constantly keeps you guessing while sitting on pins and needles, anxiously anticipating the next unpredictable twist which will change everything. What’s more, none of the characters’ actions or decisions feel forced for the sake of the story, but rather, like natural extensions of their personalities.
Though Airport might be a disaster story at heart, serving up hopeless peril in giant portions through duplicitous human beings looking out for themselves, it isn’t devoid of humour, sprinkled in strategically to remind us not all is mired in darkness. This final touch gives the book the perfect balance it needs to be a memorable story on all fronts.
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The Final Verdict
Airport by Arthur Hailey is both a fantastic suspense novel centred on poignant human drama delivered by a memorable cast of diverse characters, as well as a curious and valuable window into the world of airport management back in the 1960s.
If you’ve enjoyed other works by Arthur Hailey, or are looking for a classic disaster story centred on the flight industry, then this is definitely the novel for you.
(April 5, 1920 ― November 24, 2004)
Arthur Hailey was a British-Canadian novelist whose novels tended to centre on specific industries. Many of his novels ended up being bestsellers which were subsequently adapted into television series, including Hotel, Airport, Wheels and The Moneychangers.