Many of the passengers of Hawaiian Airlines Flight 35, which flew into severe turbulence on December 18, 2022, report that right before the turbulence hit, the airline crew announced that they were approaching Honolulu and that it was OK to use the bathroom and get up to put away items in the overhead baggage storage. 

This contradicts the post-accident statements by Hawaiian Airline officials claiming that the seatbelt lights were on, which implies that injured passengers were at fault for not wearing their seatbelts. “Even if the airline left the seatbelt light on, by instructing passengers that it was OK to move about the cabin, the airline created an ambiguity that passengers could disregard the seatbelt lights if they desired”, said Casey DuBose, a flight instructor and aviation accident attorney with Aviation Law Group, who represents many of the passengers injured on Flight 35.

Photo of the aft galley and bathroom where many of the flight attendants were injured.

One passenger shared her and her family’s experience:

At approximately 40 minutes from landing in Honolulu, the flight crew made an announcement that ‘now would be a good time to use the bathrooms if needed.’ Shortly thereafter, we heard a loud boom, and the airplane fell quickly. 

We witnessed passengers hitting their heads on the roof of the plane; several oxygen masks dropped; passengers’ personal items were flying throughout the cabin, and several overhead compartments flew open and dumped contents.

Passengers were screaming, and several passengers were crawling out of the bathrooms bleeding. As he was getting ready to use the bathroom, my husband was slammed into the ceiling, and his head broke through the overhead panels.

My husband was one of the many passengers who was triaged to go to the hospital.  My son and I were not informed of which hospital he was being taken to and had to wait at the airport.  There were no Hawaiian Airlines representatives at the hospital.

Victoria Wearsch

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently issued its preliminary report on the incident, which left at least 25 people injured, including six who were seriously injured. While the report strangely does not mention the pre-turbulence crew announcements, it does raise numerous questions regarding the pilot response to the severe turbulence, as well as the information provided to passengers regarding safety precautions, such as seatbelt use.

According to the NTSB report, the captain informed the lead flight attendant that they may encounter turbulence shortly before the incident. It is not known why this was not immediately broadcast to the passengers, and instead they were told it was a good time for them to leave their seats.

The NTSB’s preliminary report also leaves unanswered questions about the weather conditions surrounding the incident and whether the pilots received the necessary weather warnings. For instance, there is no mention of whether the pilots received a SIGMET (significant meteorology warning) for embedded thunderstorms with tops reaching 38,000 feet, which was issued by the US National Weather Service, and obviously could include significant turbulent air.

Furthermore, the report does not address the seatbelt light issue, or any issues related to passenger seatbelts. Despite Hawaiian Airlines’ initial claims that the seatbelt lights were on at the time of the accident, the NTSB report remains silent on this matter. ALG seeks to investigate this aspect further, especially given the passengers’ claims that they were told it was safe to remove their seatbelts to return items to overhead storage and to use the restrooms.

Analyzing Hawaiian Airlines’ statements after the accident likewise raises questions of intent and whether the airline fully and accurately disclosed all the facts that it was then aware of. For example, Jon Snook, Hawaiian Airlines’ chief operating officer, issued statements claiming that the seat belt sign was on and some of those injured were not wearing seatbelts. Amazingly, the press reports that Snook stated that the pilots did not have a warning that the specific severe turbulent patch of air “was in any way dangerous.”  “It is not knowing of any specific condition, i.e. a patch of turbulence, that is the issue, it is the knowledge that the overall weather conditions make it likely that damaging turbulence might exist in the planned flight path”, said Robert Hedrick, another aviation attorney with Aviation Law Group.

“An airline who is a party to a pending NTSB investigation should not go public and disclose facts about an accident without the prior approval of the NTSB, and should avoid making their case to the press right after an accident, especially if it’s an incomplete story”, said Hedrick.

Overhead panel that was broken by a client’s head impacting the roof with her hair left behind.

Considering the questions raised by the NTSB report and Hawaiian Airlines’ statements, Aviation Law Group continues its investigation to uncover the whole truth behind the Flight 35 turbulence accident. The firm is committed to seeking justice for its clients.