Airport, released in 1970, ushered in a wave of ‘70s disaster flicks that included The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Earthquake. These films were all built around a similar formula in which a group of peoplefaced with some kind of natural or man-made disaster must find a way to escape. Airport was not only popular with movie-going audiences, making more than $100 million at the box office (that’s about $530 million, adjusted for inflation), but with critics as well. The film earned 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Actress Helen Hayes won the award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. With the film’s achingly slow build, soap-opera character storylines, and geriatric stars, it’s hard to believe the film was as overwhelmingly popular as it was.
Airport is based on the 1968 novel by Arthur Hailey. The ensemble cast is built around both airline passengers and the ground and flight crew. Throughout the first half of the movie we are introduced to them, with little slices of what each was doing on the day of the flight. While the stories weave back and forth among the ensemble, the primary focus is really Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster). Bakersfeld is the manager of the fictional Lincoln Airport in Chicago. A major storm has hit the airport and Bakersfeld is juggling numerous delayed flights. They’re short one runway when a plane skids off one in the ice. On top of his demanding job, Bakersfeld has an equally demanding wife, Cindy (Dana Wynter), who is jealous of her husband’s devotion to his job. Their marriage is on the rocks, but Bakersfeld doesn’t have time to deal with it, despite his wife’s constant nagging. The scenes with Bakersfeld’s wife are over the top and ultimately inconsequential to the overall story.
The plot is focused on this type of melodrama more than the impending airline disaster itself. The pilot (Dean Martin) wants the stewardess (Jacqueline Bisset) he has been seeing to have an abortion. In addition to his already-troubled marriage, Bakersfeld is having an affair with Tanya (Jean Seberg), the public relations agent for the airline. George Kennedy plays Joe Patroni, an airline mechanic called in to assist with the plane that has gone off the runway. Besides the fact that Patroni would rather be at home with his wife, his character is one of the few to be focused on the actual problems of the airline. In one of the more amusing side stories, an elderly woman (Hayes) has been making a career of stowing away on numerous flights. Her methods seem ludicrous by today’s heightened airport security standards, but apparently they were not quite so outrageous back then. It’s nearly half way into the movie before we really get a hint of the actual disaster in this disaster movie.