In the years since its release, the film's reputation has grown substantially. The film was ranked sixth on Bravo's 100 Funniest Movies. In a 2007 survey by Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, it was judged the second greatest comedy film of all time, after Monty Python's Life of Brian.
As a parody film, Airplane! tells its story intermixed between several cut-away scenes, comedic scenes, and visual and running gags.
Ex-fighter pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is a traumatized War Veteran turned taxi driver. Due to his pathological fear of flying and "drinking problem" (being unable to take a drink without splashing it on his face), he has been unable to hold a responsible job. His wartime girlfriend, Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), now a flight attendant, leaves him before boarding her assigned flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. Ted drops everything and buys a ticket on the same flight to try to win her back. However, she still continues to reject him during the flight.
After the in-flight meal is served, several of the passengers and the flight crew fall ill. Passenger Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) discovers one of the offered courses caused food poisoning. With the flight crew incapacitated, Elaine contacts the Chicago control tower for help, and is instructed by tower supervisor Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) to activate the plane's autopilot, a large inflatable pilot doll named "Otto", which will get them to Chicago, but will not be able to land the plane. Elaine and Dr. Rumack convince Ted to take the controls. When Steve learns that Ted is piloting, he contacts Ted's former commanding officer, Rex Kramer (Robert Stack), now serving as a commercial pilot so that he can help talk Ted through landing the plane. Ted becomes troubled when Rex starts giving instructions, and briefly stresses out from flashbacks to the war, both Elaine and Dr. Rumack bolster Ted's confidence and he takes the controls under Rex's guideance.
As the plane nears Chicago, the weather becomes harsh, making landing difficult. With Elaine's help as co-pilot and Rex's guidance, Ted is able to land the plane, damaging the landing gear but with only minor injuries to the passengers. Rescue vehicles arrive to help unload the plane. Impressed by Ted's display of courage, Elaine embraces and kisses him, rekindling their relationship. The two watch as "Otto" takes control of the plane, inflates a female companion, and takes off.
Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker (collectively known as ZAZ), wrote Airplane! while they were performing with the Kentucky Fried Theatre, a successful small theatre they founded in 1971. To obtain material for comedy routines, they routinely recorded late night television and reviewed the tapes later primarily to pull the commercials, a process Abrahams compared to "seining for fish". During one such taping process, they unintentionally recorded the 1957 film Zero Hour!, and while scanning the commercials, found that the film was a "perfectly classically structured film" according to Jerry Zucker. Abrahams later described Zero Hour! as "the serious version of Airplane!". It was the first film script they wrote, completed around 1975, and was originally called The Late Show. The script originally stayed close to the dialog and plot of Zero Hour!, as ZAZ recognized they did not have a sufficient understanding of film at the time to structure a proper script. ZAZ's script borrowed so much from Zero Hour! that they believed they needed to negotiate the rights to create the remake of the film and ensure they remain within the allowance for parody within copyright law. They were able to obtain the rights from Warner Bros. and Paramount for about $2,500 at the time. The original script contained spoofs of television commercials but people who proofread the script advised them to shorten the commercials, and, eventually, ZAZ removed them. When their script was finished they were unable to sell it.
The trio knew director John Landis, who encouraged them to write a film based on their theatre sketches. They managed to put the film, called The Kentucky Fried Movie, in production in the late 1970s, and entered a movie set for the first time. David Zucker explains: "It was the first time we had ever been on a movie set. We learned a lot. We learned that if you really wanted a movie to come out the way you wanted it to, you had to direct. So on the next movie, Airplane!, we insisted on directing."
Filming took 34 days, mostly during August 1979. Jerry Zucker stood beside the camera during shooting, while David Zucker and Jim Abrahams would be watching the video feed to see how the film would look; they would confer after each take.
During filming, Leslie Nielsen used a whoopee cushion to keep the cast off-balance. Hays said that Nielsen "played that thing like a maestro".
David Zucker explained that "the trick was to cast actors like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges. These were people who, up to that time, had never done comedy. We thought they were much funnier than the comedians of that time were." David Zucker felt Stack was the most important actor to be cast, since he was the "linchpin" of the film's plot. Stack initially played his role in a way that was different from what the directors had in mind. They showed him a tape of impressionist John Byner impersonating Robert Stack. According to the producers, Stack was "doing an impression of John Byner doing an impression of Stack." Stack was not initially interested in the part, but ZAZ persuaded him. Bridges' children advised him to take the part. Graves' agent rejected the script at first: "His agent got him the script, and he was totally turned off by it. He thought it was tasteless trash." On the DVD commentary, Abrahams said, "I don't understand. What did he think was tasteless about pedophilia?" They cast a relatively unknown Robert Hays, who was a co-star of Angie, and Julie Hagerty to round out the cast, whom the directors advised to play it straight.
The film's writers and directors, as well as members of their families, showed up in cameo appearances. David and Jerry appear in the beginning as the two ground-crew members who accidentally cause a 747 to taxi into a terminal window. Abrahams is one of many religious zealots scattered throughout the film. Charlotte Zucker (David's and Jerry's mother) is the woman attempting to apply makeup in the plane while it experiences turbulence. Their sister Susan Breslau is the second ticket agent at the airport. Jim Abrahams' mother is the woman initially sitting next to Dr. Rumack.
Several other cameos add to the humor by casting actors against type. Barbara Billingsley, best known as June Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver, makes an appearance as a woman who announces she speaks jive and can translate for two black passengers who are otherwise unintelligible. Maureen McGovern appears as Sister Angelina, a spoof of the nun in Airport 1975, and a poke at her involvement as the singer of the Oscar-winning songs for the disaster films The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Jimmie Walker cameos as the man opening the hood of the plane and checking the oil before takeoff; Walker also had a minor role in the air-disaster film, The Concorde ... Airport '79. Howard Jarvis, the property-tax rebel and author of California Proposition 13, used to curb excessive tax increases, plays the taxi passenger who is left at the curb with the meter running in the film's opening and closing scene. Ethel Merman—in her last film appearance—plays a shell-shocked male soldier who is convinced he is Ethel Merman. NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar plays co-pilot Murdock, who is later revealed in dialogue to actually be Abdul-Jabbar living a secret double life. In the DVD commentary the Zuckers and Jim Abrahams revealed that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's role of co-pilot Roger Murdock was originally intended for baseball star Pete Rose. Due to Rose's schedule and his commitment to baseball, he had to decline the role.
For the "red zone/white zone" send-up of curbside terminal announcements in which public address announcers "Betty" and "Vernon" argue over the red and white zones, ZAZ went through the usual process of auditioning professional voice actors, but failed to find ones who could provide the desired verisimilitude. Instead, the filmmakers ultimately sought out and hired the real-life married couple who had recorded the announcement tapes which were then being used at LAX.
In 1980, an LP soundtrack for the film was released by Regency Records, and included dialog and songs from the film. It was also narrated by Shadoe Stevens, and only featured one score track, the "Love Theme from Airplane" composed by Elmer Bernstein. The soundtrack was altered for the European 'Flying High' release, with several of the featured tracks swapped for pieces original to the LP.
On April 28, 2009 La-La Land Records announced that it would release the first official score album for Airplane!, containing Bernstein's complete score. The soundtrack was released digitally on February 19, 2013, by Paramount Music.
Before its release, the directors had been apprehensive due to a mediocre response at one of the pre-screenings. But the film earned its entire budget of about $3.5 million in its first weekend of release. Overall, it earned more than $83 million in box office gross for $40 million in rentals, making it the fourth highest-grossing film of 1980.
Airplane! received universal acclaim from critics and is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1980. Based on 58 reviews, compiled retrospectively, Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 97% judging it "Certified Fresh." The consensus on the site reads "Though unabashedly juvenile and silly, Airplane! is nevertheless an uproarious spoof comedy full of quotable lines and slapstick gags that endure to this day."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote "Airplane! is sophomoric, obvious, predictable, corny, and quite often very funny. And the reason it's funny is frequently because it's sophomoric, predictable, corny, etc". Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote "Airplane! is more than a pleasant surprise... As a remedy for the bloated self-importance of too many other current efforts, it's just what the doctor ordered".
In 2008 Airplane! was selected by Empire magazine as one of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. It was also placed on a similar list by The New York Times, a list of The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made.
MaximOnline.com named the airplane crash in Airplane! number four on its list of "Most Horrific Movie Plane Crashes." Leslie Nielsen's line (in response to Hays' question 'surely you can't be serious'), "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley," was 79th on AFI's list of the best 100 movie quotes. In 2000 the American Film Institute listed Airplane! as number ten on its list of the 100 funniest American films. In the same year, readers of Total Film voted it the second greatest comedy film of all time. It also came second in the British 50 Greatest Comedy Films poll on Channel 4, beaten by Monty Python's The Life of Brian. Entertainment Weekly voted the film the "Funniest movie on video" in their list of the 100 funniest movies on video.
Several actors were cast to spoof their established images: prior to their roles in Airplane!, Nielsen, Stack, and Bridges were known for portraying adventurous, no-nonsense tough-guy characters. Stack's role as the captain who loses his nerve in one of the earliest airline "disaster" films, The High and the Mighty (1954), is spoofed in Airplane!, as is Lloyd Bridges' 1970–1971 television role as airport manager Jim Conrad in San Francisco International Airport. Peter Graves was in the made-for-television film SST: Death Flight, in which an SST was unable to land due to an emergency.
Nielsen saw a major boost to his career after Airplane!'s release, and the film marked a significant change in his film persona towards a new specialty in deadpan comedy, notably in the three Naked Gun films based on the six-episode television series Police Squad!. This also led to his casting, many years later, in Mel Brooks' Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Brooks had wanted to make that film for a long time, but put it off because, as he said, "I just could not find the right Dracula." Brooks claimed to have never seen Airplane! until years after its release. When he did, he knew Nielsen would be right for the part. When it was suggested that his role in Airplane! was against type, Nielsen protested that he had "always been cast against type before", and that comedy was what he always really wanted to do.
Stack and Bridges saw similar shifts in their public image, though to lesser extents. Bridges went on to play similar comedic self send-ups in Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux along with Mafia!, as well as a couple of guest appearances on Seinfeld, while Stack took on comedic roles in Caddyshack II, Beavis and Butt-head Do America and BASEketball.
Several cast members with minor roles went on to better-known parts. Gregory Itzin, who appears as one of the religious zealots, played President Charles Logan in the Fox series 24. David Leisure, who played one of the Hare Krishna, went on to fame as Joe Isuzu before appearing as Charlie Dietz in the sitcom Empty Nest. Michael Warren, who is seen as one of the patients in the hospital during Ted's flashback (and had also been a teammate of Abdul-Jabbar at UCLA), would go on to play Bobby Hill on Hill Street Blues. Jonathan Banks, who played Gunderson, gained fame playing the role of Mike Ehrmantraut on Breaking Bad.
In 2011, ABC aired a primetime special, Best in Film: The Greatest Movies of Our Time, that counted down the best films chosen by fans based on results of a poll conducted by ABC and People. Airplane! was selected as the No. 1 Best Comedy.
In 2012 Empire.com listed Airplane! as the Greatest Comedy of All Time in their poll, as voted by the public.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #10
2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Ted Striker: "Surely you can't be serious."
"Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue." – Nominated
Capt. Oveur: "You ever been in a cockpit before?"
Peter Farrelly said of the film: "I was in Rhode Island the first time I saw Airplane! Seeing it for the first time was like going to a great rock concert, like seeing Led Zeppelin or the Talking Heads. We didn't realize until later that what we'd seen was a very specific kind of comedy that we now call the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker school." Farrelly, along with his writing partner Bennett Yellin, sent a comedy script to David Zucker, who in return gave them their first Hollywood writing job. Farrelly said, "I'll tell you right now, if the Zuckers didn't exist, there would be no Farrelly brothers."
Thirty years later, the documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story opened with a scene from the film.
At the beginning of the epilogue mission in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the film is quoted. Charlie One-One says "Surely you can't be serious", and Romeo One-One replies "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley."
In the 2012 film Ted, the main character, John Bennett, tells the story of how he met Lori Collins. The flashback is a close recreation of the scene where Ted Striker met Elaine Dickinson in the disco.
In early 2014 Delta Air Lines began using a new on-board safety film with many 1980s references, including the end of the safety film with a cameo of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reprising his Airplane! role as the co-pilot Roger Murdock.
In 2014 Travel Wisconsin began airing an ad with Robert Hays and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reprising their roles from the film. Kareem makes the comment "Why did I ever leave this place?" referring to his time playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. Hays also reprises his role as an airline pilot in Sharknado 2: The Second One.
Airplane II: The Sequel, first released on December 10, 1982, attempted to tackle the science fiction film genre, though there was still emphasis on the general theme of disaster films. Although most of the cast reunited for the sequel, the writers and directors of Airplane! chose not to be involved. In the DVD commentary for Airplane! David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker claim to have never seen nor to have any desire to see Airplane II.