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Airport by Arthur Hailey

Airport (edition 1968)

by Arthur Hailey

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1,1241211,156 (3.56)23
Authors:Arthur Hailey
Info:Bantam Books (1968), Paperback
Collections:Your library

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Airport by Arthur Hailey


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Arthur Hailey


Bantam, Paperback, 1971.

12mo. [vi]+501 pp.

First published by Doubleday, March 1968.
10th printing, October 1968.
Literary Guild edition, April 1968.
Reader's Digest Condensed Book Club edition, April 1968.
Dollar Book Club edition, January 1969.
Bantam edition, July 1969.
20th printing, October 1971.


Part One: 6:30 P.M. – 8:30 P.M. (CST)
Part Two: 8:30 P.M. – 11 P.M. (CST)
Part Three: 11 P.M. – 1:30 A.M. (CST)


Spoilers ahead (including the movie)!

One of the most popular novelists of his time, Arthur Hailey seems to have fallen into nearly complete oblivion nowadays. I think this is a pity. Even the worst of his 11 novels, such as In High Places and Overload, are still very readable and not a little enjoyable. The best of them, of which Airport is a fine example, are a little more than that. Every writer, Somerset Maugham once observed, has the right to be judged by his best. This is what the venerable Telegraph wrote in an obituary from 27 November, 2004:

Airport (1968), which inspired, two years later, a phenomenally successful film starring Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin and Helen Hayes, was the acme of Hailey's writing. The formulaic disaster plot and the woodenness of the characterisation were faithfully reproduced by Hollywood, rather than being later additions.

I take issue with this statement. Airport (1970) is a nice movie, still entertaining more than 40 years later. But it’s a faint and blurred image of the novel: by no means is it a “faithful reproduction”.

The complex and multidimensional plot is greatly simplified in the movie – and so are the people. Whole characters (Keith Bakersfeld, Eliott Freemantle), together with the important insights they provide into other characters, are completely omitted. Dean Martin’s grinning, chattering and easygoing Vernon Demerest hardly resembles the cold, vain and conceited original on paper; the latter is vastly more complex too, as evident from his affair with Gwen, but this is barely hinted on the screen. Not even that can be said of the other central affair, the one between Mel and Tanya, so smouldering, suggestive and ambiguous on paper, so flat, trite and dull on the screen. The relationship between Guerrero and his wife is grossly sentimentalized. The lachrymose scene in the café is missing from the book; the atrocious melodrama of Inez Guerrero staggering among the ill-fated passengers, crying and muttering the absurd words “He didn’t want to do it”, is another ridiculous invention of the screenwriters.

In short, and in spite of a fine cast including Burt Lancaster as Mel, the lovely Jacqueline Bisset as Gwen and the fantastic Helen Hayes as the professional stowaway Ada Quonset, the movie is just a period piece. The novel is not.

People who want to complain will always find something to complain about. The kind of book Arthur Hailey wrote, thrillers especially designed for entertainment purposes and with no pretensions to be “literature” (whatever that means), is their favourite field of self-expression. And complain they do! If there is too much action related at breakneck speed, each chapter ending with a cliffhanger, they complain the characters are “flat”, “wooden”, “insipid”, and so on and so forth. If there is too much characterisation, they complain that the book is nothing but a kitchen-sink drama. As for those sensitive souls who are shocked – shocked – that women are sometimes called “girls” in Hailey’s novels – well, they should miss this one as well. Now that we have disposed of readers unfit by temperament to appreciate a good thriller, let’s look seriously at Airport.

Hailey’s writing, even within the limited requirements of the genre, is not perfect. It is annoyingly repetitious. Physical appearance is a particularly vulnerable area; the figure of one character is always “stocky”, another is “spindly”, and so on. The plot also suffers heavily from repetitions, many of them rather obviously reminding about crucial incidents. The attentive reader really doesn’t need all that. Also, some of the prodigious background is relevant neither to the plot nor to the characters. Hailey’s novels are notorious for their painstaking recreation of the world they describe, in this case airports, airplanes and airlines, and it can’t be denied that sometimes he went too far. All those predictions about the future of commercial aviation might have been topical in the late 1960s, but today they are, at best, of purely historical interest. Last but not least, there is one significant blunder in the pace: the chapter on Keith’s acute depression and sense of isolation is too long.

No matter. Airport remains a stupendous achievement of page-turning readability. I am not sure how many times I have read it, four or five I guess, and it has never failed to keep me on the edge from the first chapter to the last. The style may be too trite for the literary snobs, but for my money it works supremely well. Occasionally, there is some fine imagery (“like pustules on a battered, weakened body, trouble spots were erupting steadily”) or some vivid, thought-provoking descriptions of the airport precincts:

It was a pity, Mel Bakersfeld reflected, that runway snow teams were not more on public view. The sight was spectacular and stirring. Even now, in storm and darkness, approaching the massed equipment from the rear, the effect was impressive. Giant columns of snow cascaded to the right in arcs of a hundred and fifty feet. The arcs were framed in vehicle searchlights, and shimmered from the added color of some twenty revolving beacons – one on the roof of each vehicle in the group.
It was elemental here. More to the point, amid the airfield's loneliness there was a feeling of closeness to aviation, the real aviation which in its simplest sense was man against the elements. You lost that kind of feeling if you stayed too long in terminals and airline office buildings; there, the extraneous, nonessential things confused you. Maybe all of us in aviation management, Mel thought, should stand at the distant end of a runway once in a while, and feel the wind on our faces. It could help to separate detail from fundamentals. It might even ventilate our brains as well.

Mel Bakersfeld is not a negligible feat of characterisation. He is a man who, for all his accomplishments, has never realised his full potential. He is occasionally shown as impatient, irritable or callous. He is at least partly responsible for his disintegrating marriage. In short, he is not an idealized superhero we should root for without reservation. With the possible exception of Vernon Demerest, for whom the seven hours of the plot may well be a life-changing experience, the other characters are simpler, more types than characters indeed, but they still remain compelling studies of the proverbial demagogue (Eliott Freemantle), social outcast (Keith Bakersfeld), dangerous monomaniac (Guerrero), or practical man of endless resourcefulness, common sense and a healthy dose of contempt for authority (Joe Patroni). Not bad for “just a thriller”. All women, I’m afraid, are rather more simplistic, even though most of them, notably Gwen, Tanya and Ada Quonset, are undeniably charming.

I find it difficult to believe that any common mortal fond of plot-driven fiction, as opposed to a godlike lover of stylistic experiments, can find Airport a waste of time. Sure, he and especially she may find it less engrossing than I do. But the plot moves inexorably forward and the tension never really drops until the last pages. As for the “cast”, it is pleasantly varied and sometimes, if you choose to believe, not as simple as it might look at first glance. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Oct 19, 2015 |
A cast of characters whose loves and lives converge at Lincoln International Airport outside Chicago. Yet through skillful abridgment and Victor Garber's ability to depict characters with various accents, this fast-paced audiobook is quite enjoyable.It would make great listening for a long trip. ( )
This review has been flagged by multiple users as abuse of the terms of service and is no longer displayed (show).
  Tutter | Feb 27, 2015 |
What a snoozer w/ lots of predictions on airline technology that just never came true ... ( )
  beebowallace | Aug 5, 2013 |
This one was fun. Bought it for a quarter in Tontitown. Read it in a snowstorm in January 2010. I did think that the character's deep off-topic conversations during times of crisis was a little far-fetched, though. ( )
  audreydog | Jan 29, 2010 |
I was surprised to learn that Haily has really spent a lot of his time on figuring out all these many details of the airport life. For me this is a unique example of such a realistic description in the genre of fiction. Other than that it is nothing special in this book unless you like thrilling melodramas. ( )
  alexeyp | Nov 12, 2009 |
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» Add other authors (12 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hailey, Arthurprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Elwenspoek, Wilm W.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hallén, SvenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Landes, DanielTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
from "High Flight" by John Gillespie Mageek, Jr. (1922-1941) sometime Flight Lieutenant, Royal Canadian Air Force
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At half-past six on a Friday evening in January, Lincoln International Airport, Illinois, was functioning, though with difficulty.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0425176088, Mass Market Paperback)

When a terrifying crisis erupts--stranding a snowbound airport in a blizzard of pressure, passion and peril--the key to life and death rests in the hands of one of four people: a tough troubleshooter, an arrogant pilot, a beautiful stewardess, or a brilliant airport manager. Repackaged for a new generation of readers, this bestseller features a new Foreword by the author.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:40 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Arthur Hailey's blockbuster #1 New York Times bestseller, which was made into a hit film, takes readers behind the scenes of an airport and into the cockpit of a passenger jet during a time of crisis As a raging blizzard wreaks havoc at Lincoln International Airport outside Chicago, airport and airline personnel try to cope with this unstoppable force of nature that is endangering thousands of lives. And in the air, a lone plane struggles to reach its destination. Over the course of seven pulse-pounding hours, a tense human drama plays out as a brilliant airport manager, an arrogant pilot, a tough maintenance man, and a beautiful stewardess strive to avert disaster. Featuring a diverse cast of vibrant characters, Airport is both a realistic depiction of the airline industry and a novel of nail-biting suspense. This ebook includes a foreword by the author.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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