The novel begins in New York City. The protagonist and title character, Walter Faber, has been waiting with his mistress, Ivy, for his plane to take off. The plane has been delayed by snow for three hours. On the plane Walter is having trouble sleeping. He is nervous about flying and disturbed by the presence of the man next to him, an inconspicuous German on his way to Guatemala for business. Walter is also relieved that the plane is finally taking off, because he cannot wait to get away from Ivy. Recently Ivy has been trying to convince Walter that they should get married, even though Ivy is already married to a man who loves her. Walter has no intention of ever marrying Ivy.
During the first leg of the flight, the German tries to make conversation with Walter, and Walter tries to ignore him. During the layover in Houston, Texas, Walter realizes that the German disturbs him because he reminds him of an old friend, Joachim, whom Walter has not seen in twenty years. When the plane is ready for boarding, Walter is in the washroom. His stomach has recently been causing him pain, which is worrying him. For a moment he passes out, and when he wakes up he is staring into the face of the washroom attendant, a large, black woman. She is happy that he has recovered, and he feels a strange affection for her and for the care that she is expressing. He tries to say thank you, but she does not understand him. Walter passively decides not to get back on the plane. He waits for an incredibly long time while the desk pages him over and over again. He finally thinks he has heard his plane depart, but as soon as he goes to alter his travel arrangements, he runs directly into his air hostess, who pulls him back onto the plane.
Back in the air, Walter suddenly feels more amicable towards the German. He learns that his neighbor is traveling to a plantation in Guatemala owned by a German company, where they are growing tobacco to make a world-class German cigar. The German needs to investigate, because his brother has been there for several months and they have not been able to get in touch with him. The German is very worried about his brother. Walter falls asleep and has a strange dream in which all of his teeth fall out. When he wakes, he realizes one of the plane's four engines has just stopped. The air hostess and pilot try to act reassuringly, insisting they will easily make it to an airport in Mexico, but after a second engine goes out they make a crash landing in the Sierra Madre desert.
At this point the narrative shifts into the future. Walter looks back on the events so far and, as a technologist, he puts forth an argument that chance rather than fate is responsible for the course of human lives. He specifically argues that without the plane crash he would never have seen Hanna again or learned that he was a father. Sabeth also would still be alive. He makes a technical argument trying to explain why people misinterpret coincidence as fate.
Back in the present, Walter and the other passengers are stuck in the desert for four days and three nights. Walter and the German, Herbert, pass the time by playing chess in the shade of the wing. At night, Walter ruminates about the ways his being a technologist affects his view of the world. He believes that people in general let their emotions and their imaginations influence the way they see the world around them. For example, many people would find their isolation among the cliffs and shadows frightening, but Walter can only rationally see the relationship between the cliffs and the shadows, and he recognizes that the only real danger of isolation is starvation.
Walter discovers that Herbert is actually Joachim's brother and that Joachim is the man on the Guatemalan plantation. When the first helicopter arrives, it takes only the mail, and everyone frantically writes letters to send to family and friends. Walter writes a letter to Ivy, reiterating that their relationship is over.
Walter questions Herbert about Hanna. Herbert tells him that she is alive and that during World War II she emigrated for Paris. Walter considers his past relationship with Hanna, and he remembers clearly that he did not marry her only because he was not making enough money to support her--and because she did not actually want to marry him.
The first section of the novel serves primarily to introduce the character of the protagonist, Walter Faber, and to establish many of the themes that will play important roles in the rest of the novel. In one sense, this section is isolated from the rest of the book, because it is the most disconnected from the main conflict of the novel--Walter meeting and becoming romantically involved with his own daughter. On the other hand, as Walter points out several times, if Walter had never gotten on that plane in New York, the rest of the story would never have happened. This conflict introduces one of Frisch's principal themes, the idea that coincidence rather than fate controls the direction of a person's life. Walter Faber believes that being seated next to Herbert, Joachim's brother, was a coincidence, not fate. The distinction between coincidence and fate is not obvious; yet, coincidence seems to have room for choice, since Walter believes that his own choices affect what happens to him.
The possible precedence of the randomness of events over choice becomes clear when Walter is not able to carry out his choices. Despite all his efforts to avoid getting back on the plane, Walter is carried along by circumstance and ultimately obeys the air hostess out of his desire to do what is socially appropriate. Walter is unable to actively choose not to reboard the plane. When his hiding is unsuccessful, he allows a different choice to be made for him. In fact, his will is so easily swayed by events that when the plane crashes, he does not even express anger that the air hostess forced him back on the plane.
The second theme introduced in this section is the idea of technological omnipotence, the idea that in the modern world technology can control everything. Walter works for UNESCO, an arm of the United Nations whose mission is to encourage the free spread of technology and ideas throughout the world, especially between developed and developing countries. A founding principle of UNESCO was that the spread of ideas would ultimately lead to greater understanding between peoples--and, hopefully, world peace. Walter emphasizes that being a technologist guides the way that he views the world. He believes he sees things more clearly than other people, and he believes that technology has taught him to see the world more rationally. Again, this section foreshadows that his idea will be in tension with actual events, because the airplane (representing technology) proves to be unreliable and crashes.
When the first helicopter arrives, it seems dehumanized, like an independent agent without a human pilot. It mechanistically takes the mail, not the human passengers. This scene stresses the dangerous loss of the human in technology. Rather than taking comfort in the mail helicopter, everyone rushes to write letters, reaching out for human contact beyond the helicopter. Walter, for his part, uses his portable typewriter and inserts a sheet of carbon paper, because he prefers his human contact mediated by the latest technology.
This first section also introduces the reader to a narrative device that will be used throughout the novel: Frisch establishes temporal disconnections by moving the story around in time. Walter will frequently interject thoughts from the future or memories of the past without a clear transition. This technique serves two important purposes. First, it emphasizes that the ideas and internal developments of the story are more important than the events. Very few things actually happen in the story, but Walter returns to each of them multiple times and in different ways. In the first interjection, Walter is hinting at the ultimate action of the book, mentioning Hanna and Sabeth without explaining who they are or why they are important. In some sense he is simply foreshadowing their importance so that the reader will continue to focus on their names. But in another sense, Walter is slowly removing the suspense from the reader's experience of the novel. Walter does not want the reader to be surprised by what is to come; he wants the reader to focus on how things develop. Frisch also uses this technique to emphasize that Walter is narrating these events, which lends a fictionality even within the realities of the novel--this is Walter's story of what happened, not an objectively narrated truth.