Ryan Weaver (Liotta) is arrested for a murder that he says he did not commit, and must be transported to Los Angeles to face trial. He and another prisoner, Stubbs (Brendan Gleeson) are escorted by four US marshals on a Boeing 747 on a commercial flight that, even though it is Christmas Eve, is nearly empty, with only 11 people on board.
During the flight, Stubbs breaks free and begins a shootout with the marshals. Amidst the chaos, and before Stubbs ends up shot dead himself, both the pilot and co-pilot are killed and a stray bullet puts a hole in a window. Because of the death of the pilots, Teri Halloran, a stewardess, makes her way into the cockpit and learns she is the only one left capable of keeping the 747 from crashing. To make matters worse, the plane is heading for a Category 6 storm.
Meanwhile, Weaver, who freed himself during the shootout, unsuccessfully attempts to save the last remaining marshal and appears to be horrified by the ordeal, increasing the passengers' trust in him. However, his behavior becomes increasingly erratic, having severe nervous breakdowns, and seemingly not being after all the nice guy he said to be...
The film did well enough on home video to become a trilogy with two new Direct-to-Video sequels. They are Turbulence 2: Fear of Flying (1999) and Turbulence 3: Heavy Metal (2001), each with a different cast.
This film provides examples of:
- Ax-Crazy: Weaver once he reveals his true colors.
- An Asskicking Christmas: It's bullets, Crash Course Landings and Ray Liotta hamming it up on Christmas Eve.
- Crash Course Landing: After the pilot and co-pilot are killed by Stubbs' rampage, flight attendant Teri has to land the plane.
- Did I Mention It's Christmas?: The entire plane is highly decorated with Christmas trees and other decorations, like lights, wreaths and mistletoes (which made Roger Ebert wonder in his review if somebody had ever seen Christmas decorations inside a plane), but the fact that it's Christmas Eve doesn't factor on the plot (conspiciously, the plane only has a dozen passengers, but it isn't made clear if it has something to do or not with the holidays).
- Disposable Pilot: The pilot and co-pilot are the first ones to go down when Stubbs begins his shootout.
- Final Girl: Teri ends up having to take the serial killer down alone in the climax. Slight variant on this trope in that a) after she dispatches the serial killer, she still has to land the plane, and b) the rest of the passengers of the plane weren't killed, but actually put on the cargo hold (although the killer lied and said that he killed them all).
- Ironic Nursery Tune: After the serial killer breaks loose and (supposedly) kills everyone on the plane except the flight attendant Teri, he stalks after her while gently singing "Buffalo Sally, won'tcha come out tonight, come out tonight, ..."
- Just Plane Wrong:
- A 747 can not fly inverted. Its engines will flame out from fuel starvation.
- The autopilot disengages when pressure is lost, then reengages when the hole is plugged. Autopilot does not work like that.
- The cabin door of a 747 is designed specifically to be virtually impossible to open in-flight.
- When cabin air pressure is lost, most of the oxygen masks fail to drop.
- When the hull is breached, the pilot declares an emergency over the radio and requests permission to descend, which is denied. The correct procedure is to descend, then tell air traffic control what is going on so they can direct other aircraft and keep the way clear.