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The action of the 1952 novel Prisoner's Base takes place in 1952 in New York. In chapter 15, the author writes in the voice of one of the characters:

Some chauffeurs of PD [=police department] cars like to have an excuse to step on it, and some don't. That one did. He didn't use much noise, but plenty of gas, and when he was in the fourth grade a maladjusted schoolteacher had made him write five hundred times, "A miss is as good as a mile," and it sank in. I should have clocked us from 230 West Twentieth Street to 240 Centre Street. As I got out I told him he should have an insurance vending machine, like those at airports, installed on his dash, and he grinned amicably. "Impressed you, did it, bud?"

What were "those [insurance vending machines] at airports" and how did they work? What kind of insurance did they sell? Who bought it, and why? And how could insurance be sold via a vending machine (in 1952, before automated online personal-information lookup), without knowing the buyer's risk level?

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The fact a plane is going to crash doesn't usually depend on the buyer's risk level. – Geeo Mar 21 '14 at 5:52
Some insurances are sold without much risk evaluation (everybody gets the same premium/coverage): Travel cancellation or luggage insurance (cf. ads you see when buying a ticket) and rescue insurance for winter sports are two examples I noticed. The main problem is that the premium can be steep for people who present a lower risk, risk evaluation for car insurance for example aims at attracting select groups of customers with more attractive prices. – Relaxed Mar 21 '14 at 6:23
Some are also still sold at vending machines. Winter sports insurance is even sold without ID, I think, you're simply covered if you got a proof of insurance on you. – Relaxed Mar 21 '14 at 6:23
Airplane insurance (though not from a vending machine) featured in the film Airport. – Andrew Grimm Mar 21 '14 at 8:12
I remember these vending machines at the Winnipeg airport in 1974. It took quarters, but I don't recall how many. – user28661 Apr 19 at 18:28

4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Those machines seem to have been quite common. Here is a photo of one:

enter image description here

There were even patented, but unfortunately the patent does not reveal the financial background. From this court case however, you can read about the process of making such a purchase:

The policy set out across the top the following specifications: "Do Not Purchase More Than a Total of $62,500 Principal Sum--Nor for Travel on Other Than Scheduled Air Carriers. This Policy Covers on One-Way Trip Only Unless Round Trip Ticket Is Purchased Before Departure." Below this printed statement a box form provided for the insertion on appropriate lines of the insured's name, the name and address of the beneficiary, the point of departure and destination, the extent of the trip as on a one-way or round-trip ticket, the date, the principal sum of insurance ($62,500), the amount of the premium ($2.50), and the insured's signature. The evidence does not clearly show whether at the time of purchase the aperture of the vending machine disclosed the entire top portion of the policy, including the printed warning as to amount and coverage for travel on "scheduled air carriers," or merely the form for the personal data and flight information to be furnished by the purchaser. After obtaining the policy, Mr. Steven, using the envelope provided by the machine, mailed it to his wife.

The court case however points already to the difficulties of such an insurance and the issues that arise. There is even a paper that quotes this court case as an example of these issues. This was an issue specially because such flight insurance was available routinely at airports across the USA as noted in several documents posted online.

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Nice finds! +1, and many thanks. – msh210 Mar 21 '14 at 6:29

"Was"? Travel insurance vending machines are alive and well in that wonderland of vending machines, Japan! Ryokouhoken-jidouhanbaiki (旅行保険自動販売機) can be found to this day at most larger Japanese airports. For example, JII has machines at 8 airports, and here's a row at Kansai Int'l:

enter image description here

(courtesy this guy)

As for how they work etc, it's really no different to buying travel insurance online: you tell them how old you are, where you're going, for how long and whether you're planning to engage in mountain unicycling while sword-swallowing, and they spit out a quote based on your profile. Swipe your credit card or feed it good old cash, and ta-dah, you're set.

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I remember that sometime in the 90ties I saw something like this at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.

Of course different design - looked much more like a ticket vending machine of the time. But it sold insurances for a single flight.

Was even tempted to buy one as it was rather cheap.

Too bad I don't remember details, and no photo. But I think part of it was to give the address of the beneficiary, and that you would get an envelope to send a copy of the insurance policy to the beneficiary (in my case my wife). Somehow I thought this would be some kind of funny souvenir.

So it seems these machines still exist somewhere, or at least still did in the nineties.

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+1, and thank you. – msh210 Mar 21 '14 at 21:39

I've changed this from a comment as it's longish and, while not strictly addressing the letter of the question, it does address the spirit, and adds some cautionary advice.

The equivalent functionality to an insurance selling machine is often achieved nowadays when an online ticket is bought as part of the overall transaction, using wholly customer-machine processes. The "machine" is now an internet connected computer or, really, the software running on a remote system. The insurance covers, at most, the flight being booked. It is usually life insurance with an allowance for baggage loss if this also occurs when you die. I have not seen broader 'travel insurance' offered in this way.

Unless the buyer's known travel-profile includes a known propensity for checked-in bombs, or carry-on knives and the like then their risk profile for the one flight involved should should be about the same as for all the rest on board.

Warning - Buyer Beware - "Insurance" may not be what it seems :-( :

Sometimes you may not only not get what you think you get, but effectively get a substantial negative return for your money. Always read the fine print when dealing with companies who you are not 101% confident in. (That should be most of them.) Because ...

We were offered such "insurance" on a flight from Yogyakata to Kuala Lumpur. The flight path was wholly in Indonesian territory except at the very end where it turned at 90 degrees opposite KL and flew into Malaysian air space.

I read the fine print. The policy excluded accidents in the airspace of the country that you took off from. That would mean it covered at best the maybe 5% of the flight which was in Malaysian airspace. Given that exclusion, and what I found next there was probably something there that excluded that leg as well.
I read on. By signing the document you assigned the "insurer" the rights to access all your medical information from any source in perpetuity. The right was non revocable by you or by your estate. This was specifically stated. As I recall the "insurance" cost about $US3. It seemed like a bargain. But, in fact, you were paying them $3 to acquire the rights to all your medical records irrevocably and forever. That right probably has substantial value in the insurance industry worldwide.

What was the airline? You may be able to work that out from the fact that one of their aircraft, piloted by an ex military pilot who was the son of a national leader, was lost with all aboard in uncertain circumstances (Airbus fall out of the sky mode) on a short international flight in the same general area that my flight was in, in the relatively recent past. I've wondered since what happened to passengers estates that tried to claim on the passengers insurance policies.

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