The story takes place at Lincoln International, a fictional Chicago airport based very loosely on O'Hare International Airport.
The action mainly centers on Mel Bakersfeld, the Airport General Manager. His devotion to his job is tearing apart his family and his marriage to his wife Cindy, 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 passenger relations manager Tanya Livingston.
The story takes place mainly over the course of one evening and night, as a massive snowstorm plays havoc with airport operations. The storyline centers on Bakersfeld's struggles to keep the airport open during the storm. His chief problem is the unexpected closure of primary Runway 30 (runway 29 in the subsequent film), caused when a departing airliner for a Mexican airline (in the film, an arriving airplane of the same airline as the flight to Rome) turns off past the wrong side of a runway marker light, burying the plane's landing gear in the snow, and blocking the runway. This becomes a major problem as another airplane, Trans America Flight Two, experiences a midair emergency, aborts the flight to Rome and returns to Lincoln. This requires runway 30 to be made operational---at any cost.
The closing of runway 30 requires the use of shorter runway 25 (runway 22 in the subsequent film), which has the unfortunate consequence of causing planes to take off over a noise-sensitive suburb, whose residents picket the airport in protest. The shorter runway 25 is also later inadequate to land the returning airplane, which has suffered major structural and mechanical damage due to explosive decompression caused by the detonation of the bomb brought on board.
The book presents an overview of the operations of a major commercial airport, much of which is still applicable over 40 years later. Several major and minor characters appear, illustrating the vast complexity of the airport and its operations, including customs officers, lawyers, airport police, doctors, clerks, snow clearers, et al.