A bomber on board an airplane, an airport almost closed by snow, and various personal problems of the people involved.
This precursor to later "epic" 70's disaster films illustrates 12 hours in the lives of the personnel and passengers at the "Lincoln Airport." Endless problems, professional and personal, are thrown at the various personnel responsible for the safe and proper administration of air traffic, airline management and aviation at a major US airport. Take one severe snowstorm, add multiple schedules gone awry, one elderly Trans Global Airlines stowaway, shortages, an aging, meretricious pilot, unreasonable, peevish spouses, manpower issues, fuel problems, frozen runways and equipment malfunctions and you get just a sample of the obstacles faced by weary, disgruntled personnel and passengers at the Lincoln Airport. Toss in one long-suffering pilot's wife, several stubborn men, office politics and romance and one passenger with a bomb and you have the film "Airport" from 1970.
Mel Bakersfeld, the general manager of a Chicago-area airport, must contend with a massive snowstorm and other issues, both work-related and personal, while the troubled D.O. Guerrero threatens to blow up an airliner. As pilot Vernon Demerest attempts to calm Guerrero down and dissuade him from setting off explosives on the plane, tensions increase in the air and on the ground, and danger is imminent.
Mel Bakersfeld is the hard-charging manager of Lincoln International Airport, trying to keep his airport open despite a raging Midwestern snowstorm and an angry wife. Meanwhile, his antagonistic brother-in-law, Vernon Demerest, may have his plans for a placid layover in Italy disturbed by unexpected news from Gwen Meighen, and by the plans of D.O. Guerrero, the loose cannon on board.
Arthur Haley's bestselling novel brought to the screen. A midwestern U.S. hub airport struggles to remain open despite the worst snowstorm in 25 years, angry homeowners from a nearby housing tract and pilots refusing to obey noise abatement rules during the storm. Mel Bakersfield is the airport manager who must not only fight the weather and the home owners but his pilot/playboy brother-in-law, his divorce seeking wife, a deranged man with a bomb, a plane stuck in the mud and blocking the main runway, a little old lady stowaway and the airport commissioners. A very accurate, for its time, depiction of the day-to-day goings on at a busy airport-- with some extra high drama thrown in for seasoning.
- The story takes place during one long night during a sudden blizzard at Lincoln International, a fictional Chicago airport based very loosely on O'Hare International Airport.
The action mainly centers on Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster), the airport general manager. His devotion to his job is tearing apart his family and his marriage to his constantly angry and domineering wife Cindy (Dana Wynter), who resents his use of his job at the airport as a device to avoid going to various after-hours events she wants him to participate in, as she attempts to climb into the social circles of Chicago's elite. His problems in his marriage are further exacerbated by his romantically-charged friendship with a lovely divorcee, Trans America Airlines (TGA) passenger relations manager Tanya Livingston (Jean Sebrig).
The movie centers on Bakersfeld's struggles to keep the airport open during the snowstorm. His chief problem is the unexpected closure of primary runway 29, caused when a landing airliner turns off past the wrong side of a taxiway marker light, missing the taxiway, and burying the plane's landing gears in the snow, blocking the runway. Bakersfield is forced to call upon Joe Patroni (George Kennedy), the tough and practical head of maintenance operations for Trans World Airlines, at Lincoln. Patroni is told to move the disabled aircraft blocking the runway 29. Patroni spends the rest of the movie with his men to dig the plane out of the snow and fights with the pilots to do so under the aircraft's own power without damaging it.
Meanwhile, Bakersfield deals with his brother-in-law Vern Demerest (Dean Martin), a pompous and self-confident senior pilot for Trans Global Airlines(TGA) who opposes Bakersfield on a number of issues involving business and personal issues. Both Mel Bakersfield and his sister Sarah (Barbara Hale) are unaware that Vern is having an extramarital affair with Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset), a chief stewardess on his routine flights whom is planning her latest trip to Rome, Italy and is frustrated about her secret affair with Vern who keeps telling her that he will leave his wife.
Back at Lincoln Airport, the closing of runway 29 due to the stuck plane requires the use of the shorter runway 22, which has the unfortunate consequence of causing planes to take off over a noise-sensitive suburb, whose residents picket the airport in protest. Mel Bakersfield insists that the airport stay open despite pressure from the owner and the mayor to close it for the night.
A little later, the airport authorities arrest an elderly lady named Mrs. Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes) whom is attempting to board a plane without a ticket. Ada is brought to the TGA lounge office where he and Tanya discover her to be a frequent stowaway whom has a long record of stowing away aboard cross-country flights and passes herself off as the "poor little-old lady" to get away with it. Mrs. Quonsett is put in the custody of a TGA agent to be put on a flight back to her home in California, but gives him the slip.
Back at the airport, Patroni and his men have dug out the snow from the stuck airplane's landing gear and are attempting to move it. Despite Patroni's orders to use full power, the pilot refuses to do so, for fear it would damage it, and the plane only moves a few feet before getting stuck in the snow again, of which Patroni and the pilot get into a very heated argument. Patroni then tells Bakersfield they have to dig deeper and put lumber under the wheels for added support, and after a heated argument between Bakersfield and the pilot, Bakersfield agrees to let Patroni taxi the airplane out next time, since Patroni is licensed to taxi.
Meanwhile, D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin) is an increasingly psychologically-disturbed, bankrupt building contractor and demolitions expert, who is determined to find a way to solve his financial problems, regardless of what it will cost others. He builds a bomb that'll fit inside his briefcase with the intention of using it to commit suicide by blowing up a Rome-bound Boeing 707 Intercontinental jet over the Atlantic Ocean so his wife Inez (Maureen Stapleton), who manages a seedy diner, can collect the on the $225,000 insurance policy(which he plans to buy at the airport prior to his departure) since a plane crashing in the ocean leaves no trace of evidence for the insurance company to investigate his death. He leaves their apartment, stops at the diner to say goodbye to his wife, and then leaves on the ruse that he intends to take a bus to Milwaukee to start a new job, but the bus is actually bound for the airport. When Inez arrives home, she finds a special delivery letter from the travel agency who issued his plane ticket, they accidentally overcharged Guerrero for the ticket, so there was a partial refund check enclosed with the letter. Confused, she heads off to the airport.
Gwen and Vern arrive at Lincoln to board their Flight 2 to Rome and she tells him that she just learned that she's pregnant. As the plans begins to board, Ada stows away on plane and sits next to Guerrero whom is behaving nervously, holding his briefcase (with the bomb in it) on his lap, intending to detonate it once the plane is over the ocean.
After the plane takes off, Guerroero's wife arrives too late at the airport and goes into a state of shock. When she is brought to the security office after she is found wondering around, she manages to tell them about her husband and what he intends to do. Bakersfield learns about this and has Flight 2 contacted to inform Vernon as well as Captain Harris (Barry Nelson) about the bomb on board. Also learning that Ada is on board the flight and sitting next to Guerrero, Bakersfield contacts Vernon on board the flight to turn the plane around back for Chicago.
As the plane is being turned around, Gwen approaches Ada, loudly exposing her as a stowaway while ignoring Guerrero, in a ruse to bring her to the cockpit, where Ada is let in on what is going on. Ada agrees to help create a diversion. When she is brought back to her seat by Gwen, Vern appears and attempts to lunge at Guerrero who figures out what is going on and stands up out of his seat. Gwen manages to grab the briefcase, but another grumpy passenger, thinking they are wrongly grabbing "personal property," grabs it from Gwen and gives it back to Guerrero. Vern tries to persuade Guerrero not to trigger the bomb since everyone on the ground has figured out his plot and canceled his insurance. For a moment Guerrero looked like he was going to surrender, but another passenger comes out of the lavatory, and that same grumpy passenger yells, "Grab him, he's got a bomb!!", startling Guerrero, who runs into the lavatory and detonates the bomb. The detonation blows a large hole in the plane, killing Guerrero and seriously injuring Gwen. The plane is structurally damaged in the explosion and subsequent rapid decompression, forcing the pilot to put the plane into a dive, in order to get down to 10,000 feet as quickly as possible, in order to get down to breathable air before the passenger oxygen runs out.
As Flight 2 returns to Lincoln, Vern realizes the longer runway 29 is still closed, and runway 22 is too short to handle the landing of the damaged plane. After a heated argument with Air Traffic Control, which Bakersfield also hears, he realizes the seriousness of the situation that Flight 2 desperately needs to land at runway 29, which still has the stuck-in-the-snow plane on the runway. Patroni and his men are still trying to dig the plane out of the snow and after Bakersfield tells him about the emergency, he goes into the cockpit and attempts to rev up the engines to free the plane, which after few tense moments, Patroni finally manages to do so without damaging the runway or the plane.
After a harrowing flight back, Vern along with the other Captain, manages to land the plane on newly re-opened runway 29, using the entire length of the runway, and save the rest of the passengers and crew. After everyone had disembarked, he decides to accompany the badly injured Gwen to the hospital where his wife sees him and becomes aware of his extramarital affair. He has decided to leave his wife to be with Gwen.
After Mrs. Ada Quonsett is cleared of all criminal charges of stowing away, she is given a first class ticket to return to her hometown.
His marriage over, Mel Bakersfield asks Tanya if she would like to "have breakfast" at her apartment with him and she happily agrees.