Airport (1970)

Fifty years ago today, the film Airport premiered and originated the 1970s disaster film genre of which I am a fan (and the Airport film franchise). Aside from it giving a glimpse into how much more glamorous air travel was, it is star-studded, and quite dramatic. You have to see this film.

airport 1970 002
AIRPORT, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean Seberg, Burt Lancaster, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen Stapleton, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Dana Wynter, Barry Nelson, Barbara Hale, George Kennedy, George Seaton and Ross Hunter, 1970

Title: Airport
Directed by: George Seaton
Produced by: Ross Hunter
Screenplay by: George Seaton
Based on: Airport by Arthur Hailey
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Maureen Stapleton, Barbara Hale
Music by: Alfred Newman
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Edited by: Stuart Gilmore
Production company: Ross Hunter Productions
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release date: March 5, 1970 (New York City), May 29, 1970 (United States)
Running time: 136 minutes
Budget: $10.2 million
Box office: $100.5 million
Oscar: Best Supporting Actress: Helen Hayes
Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture: Maureen Stapleton
Golden Laurel: Best Supporting Female Performance: Helen Hayes

The Chicago area is paralyzed by a snowstorm affecting Lincoln International Airport. A Trans Global Airlines (TGA) Boeing 707 flight crew misjudge their turn from Runway 29 onto the taxiway, becoming stuck in the snow and closing that runway. Airport manager Mel Bakersfeld is forced to work overtime, causing tension with his wife, Cindy. A divorce seems imminent as he nurtures a closer relationship with a co-worker, TGA customer relations agent Tanya Livingston.

Vernon Demerest is a TGA captain scheduled to be the checkride captain for the airline to evaluate Captain Anson Harris during TGA Flight 2 to Rome. TGA’s flagship international service, named The Golden Argosy, is being operated with a Boeing 707. Although Demerest is married to Bakersfeld’s sister, Sarah, he is secretly having an affair with Gwen Meighen, chief stewardess on the flight, who informs him before takeoff that she is pregnant with his child. Bakersfeld borrows TWA mechanic Joe Patroni to assist with moving TGA’s disabled plane blocking Runway 29. Bakersfeld and Tanya also deal with Ada Quonsett, an elderly widow from San Diego who is a habitual stowaway on various airlines.

Demolition expert D.O. Guerrero, down on his luck and with a history of mental illness, buys both a one-way TGA ticket aboard TGA Flight 2 and a large life insurance policy with the intent of committing suicide by blowing up the plane. He plans to set off a bomb in an attaché case while over the Atlantic Ocean so that his wife, Inez, will collect the insurance money of $225,000 ($1.5 million today). His erratic behavior at the airport, including using his last cash to buy the insurance policy and mistaking a U.S. Customs officer for an airline gate agent, attracts airport officials’ attention. Inez finds a Special Delivery envelope from a travel agency and, realizing D.O. might be doing something desperate, goes to the airport to try to dissuade him. She informs airport officials that he had been fired from a construction job for “misplacing” explosives and that the family’s financial situation is dire.

Ada manages to evade the TGA employee assigned the task of putting her on a flight back to Los Angeles, talks her way past the gate agent, boards Flight 2, and happens to sit next to Guerrero. When Flight 2’s crew is made aware of Guerrero’s presence and possible intentions, they turn the plane back toward Chicago without informing the passengers. Once Ada is discovered, her help is enlisted by the crew to get to Guerrero’s briefcase, but the ploy fails when a troublesome passenger interferes and returns the case to Guerrero.

Demerest goes back into the passenger cabin and tries to persuade Guerrero not to trigger the bomb, informing him that his insurance policy has been nullified. Guerrero briefly moves to give Demerest the bomb, but just then another passenger exits the lavatory at the rear of the aircraft, and the same troublesome passenger yells out that Guerrero has a bomb. Guerrero runs into the lavatory and sets off the bomb, dying instantly and blowing a three foot hole in the fuselage. Gwen, just outside the door, is injured in the explosion and subsequent explosive decompression, but the pilots retain control of the airplane.

With all airports east of Chicago unusable due to bad weather, Flight 2 returns to Lincoln for an emergency landing. Due to the bomb damage, Demerest demands the airport’s longest runway, Runway 29, which is still closed due to the stuck airliner. Bakersfield orders the plane to be pushed off the runway by snowplows, despite the costly damage they would do to it. Patroni, who is “taxi-qualified” on 707s, has been trying to move the stuck aircraft in time for Demerest’s damaged aircraft to land. By exceeding the 707’s engine operating parameters, Patroni frees the stuck jet without damage, allowing Runway 29 to be reopened just in time for the crippled TGA Flight 2 to land.

In a brief epilogue, Ada is enjoying her reward of free first-class travel on TGA. But as she arrives at the gate, she laments that it was “much more fun the other way.”

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