The script was first optioned by Denzel Washington's then agent Ed Limato who'd been kicking it around Hollywood for several months until Denzel showed interest. However, in order to get the film made with the studio's modest take-it-or-leave-it $28m budget, Washington and director Robert Zemeckis accepted a reported tenth of their usual salaries.
The crash was inspired by a real life disaster, the crash of Alaska Airlines 261. The plane suffered a catastrophic failure with its horizontal stabilizer eventually causing it to dive "nose-down" at a rate exceeding 13,300 feet per minute. The pilots, like in the film, rolled the airplane to an inverted position to try and stabilize it. Unlike the film, however, this unfortunately didn't assist them in recovering the aircraft.
The flight number, 227, used in the movie is a common superstition to those flights that have crashed where the flight number digits add up to 11. A number of spectacular airline crashes also had this feature such as AA 191, the DC-10 that lost an engine in Chicago and crashed in 1979 as well as PSA 182 that nosed dived into San Diego in 1978 (where the pilots and flight attendants had been drinking and frolicking the night before as overheard by passengers who got off the same plane in Los Angeles).
According to producers Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke (during a Q&A session with the Producers' Guild on October 18th, 2012), the primary airplane in the film is a pastiche of several existing commercial airliners so as to not ID a particular plane or airline in the film. Also, no promotional consideration was paid by any of the alcohol brands featured in the movie; they decided to feature beer, wine and hard liquor brands for one shot only so as not to "endorse" any of them.
According to 'Denzel Washington (I)', American company Delta Airlines granted the production team access to their official flight simulator in order to learn some of the most common maneuvers pilots have to master in order to fly a commercial plane.
In the elevator with the small child, as Whip wipes his nose, a muzak version of The Beatles' "With a little help from my friends," can be heard. The verse begins, "I get high with a little help from my friends," right after Whip's friend gets him high.
When Nicole throws her purse on the coffee table, knocking over a box of drug paraphernalia, the song "Under the Bridge" by Red Hot Chili Peppers is playing. 'Under the Bridge' is about Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis' experiences shooting heroin under a bridge in downtown Los Angeles.
In the earlier movie High Road to China (1983), the character of Patrick O'Malley (Tom Selleck) drinks heavily and flies a plane whilst hungover, and even flies it upside-down. These combined story elements are all also performed by Denzel Washington in this movie too.
When Nicole (Kelly Reilly) is asking Kip for some money on the set of a porn film, she is told that she should play Desdemona. Kelly Reilly once played Desdemona in a famous Donmar Warehouse production in London with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello and Ewan McGregor as Iago.