Arthur Hailey was a British-Canadian novelist. Aside from Airport, he also wrote Hotel, Wheels and The Evening News. Several of his books and stories, including Airport, were adapted into movies and television miniseries. One could even say that the film adaptation of Airport, released in 1970, ushered in an era of disaster movies that perhaps ended with Airplane!, also inspired by Airport.
Airport explores a particularly stressful day at the fictional Lincoln International Airport. The airport manager, Mel Bakersfield, is doing his best to cope with both a blizzard and a stranded plane on runway three. At the same time, his brother-in-law, pilot Vernon Demerest, is dealing with the consequences of an extramarital affair. Mel's brother and Vernon's brother-in-law Keith is dealing with the aftereffects of a traumatic incident which might be influencing his performance as one of the airport's air traffic controllers.
Aside from this general plot there are the operations and airport procedures which occupy the other half of the book. Through Airport we get a look at topics as varied as the state of aviation, baggage handling regulations, the manner in which customs officers inspect for contraband, the management of airport businesses, and just about everything else pertaining to the state of airports in the late 60s. It can be interesting if you like that sort of thing - as I do - but in the novel there's an uneasy marriage between the technical details and the situations in which the characters find themselves. At certain points one gets the feeling that Arthur Hailey would have preferred writing a nonfiction book about airports, but since there was less money in that he wrote a novel set in an airport instead.
My biggest complaint about this book is its lack of moral ambiguity. Even the abortion discussions that Vernon finds himself participating in are very black and white, without any room for interpretation. The bad people are bad, the good people are good, and although the characters do overcome certain inner conflicts they're never really changed by their experiences - no matter how stressful or traumatic. I thought the "bomber" character in particular could have been developed better. Making him more sympathetic would have added a lot to the book.
This novel also has its share of unnecessary subplots. There's the lawyer character's scheme, for instance, or Mel and Tanya's romance. If the author had just whittled this thing down to a more focused conflict between Mel, Vernon and Keith this novel would've had a lot more room for the technical details he was interested in, and the resulting book would have been a lot for to the point.
Of course the flipside to having too many subplots is the lack of development with regard to certain characters. Keith's dilemma could have been explored in greater detail, but as it is the author has to rush through it. Tanya and Gwen, Vernon's girlfriend, are little more than props. Even Mel, who was played so brilliantly by Burt Lancaster in the movie, seems somewhat lost in his own story. Vernon's character doesn't always make a great deal of sense, and giving him more motivation for disliking Mel would have elevated the story.
One interesting aspect of this book is very the male-centric society in which its characters operate. The year in which Airport takes place is a year in which it was good to be a man, and more specifically good to be a white, Anglo-Saxon man. The discussions of abortion also offer a good window into the morality of the time, even if this morality will seem outmoded to modern readers. Those waxing nostalgic over former times would do well to read this book, and consider how they would fare in its time period. In some ways it might seem a purer time, where right and wrong were more easily distinguished, but it was also a repressive time, in which a certain subset of the population tended to dominate public affairs.
My recommendation? It definitely drags at times, but for the most part I liked Airport. I doubt I'll be reading other books by the same author, but if you enjoyed the 1970 film you'll find that the novel adds an extra dimension to that story. Airport is far from the best-written book I've ever read, but it was interesting nonetheless.
Note: It's easy to confuse Arthur Hailey with Alex Hailey, the author of Roots. Alex Hailey was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, so I'm assuming he was a much better writer than Arthur Hailey.