Neerja Bhanot was born in Chandigarh, the daughter of Rama Bhanot and Harish Bhanot, a Mumbai-based journalist. She was an alumna of Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School, Chandigarh, Bombay Scottish School and St. Xavier's College, Mumbai.
Bhanot had an arranged marriage in March 1985 and joined her husband in the Gulf. However, the marriage turned sour following dowry pressure and she returned to her parents' home in Mumbai within two months. She then applied for a flight attendant job with Pan Am, and upon selection, went to Miami for training as a flight attendant but returned as purser.
Bhanot was the senior flight purser on the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73, which was hijacked by four heavily armed terrorists after it landed at Karachi at 5 am from Mumbai. PA 73 was en route to Frankfurt and onward to New York City. Bhanot alerted the cockpit crew about the hijack and, as the plane was on the tarmac, the three-member American cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer fled from the aircraft. Bhanot, being the senior-most cabin crew member on board, took charge.
The hijackers were part of the terrorist Abu Nidal Organization and were backed by Libya. The terrorists then instructed Bhanot to collect the passports of all the passengers so that they could identify the Americans. Bhanot and the other attendants under her charge hid the passports of the 41 Americans on board – some under a seat and the rest down a rubbish chute.
After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Bhanot opened the emergency door and helped a number of passengers escape. She could have been the first to jump out when she opened the door but she decided not to and was shot while shielding three children from a hail of bullets. Bhanot was recognised internationally as "the heroine of the hijack" and is the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra Award, India's most prestigious gallantry award for bravery during peace time.
For her bravery, the Government of India posthumously awarded her the Ashoka Chakra Award (India's highest gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy during peace time), and Bhanot became its youngest recipient. In 2004 the Indian Postal Service released a stamp commemorating her.
With the insurance money and an equal contribution from Pan Am for using the brand Pan Am in the title, Bhanot's parents set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust. The trust presents two awards every year, one for a flight crew member, worldwide, who acts beyond the call of duty and another to an Indian woman who, when faced with social injustice such as dowry or desertion perseveres and then helps other women in similar social distress. The award includes a sum of INR 1,50,000, a trophy and a citation.
Bhanot's brother Aneesh went to Washington DC in 2005 to receive the 'Justice for Crimes Award' awarded posthumously to her as part of the 'Annual Crime Rights Week' at a ceremony held at the United States Attorney's office for the District of Columbia.In 2006, she and the other Pan Am Flight 73 flight attendants and Pan Am's flight director for Pakistan were awarded the Special Courage award by the US Department of Justice.
A square called Neerja Bhanot Chowk is named after her in Mumbai's Ghatkopar (East) suburb by the Mumbai Municipal Corporation, which was inaugurated by Amitabh Bachchan in the early 1990s.
Neerja is an upcoming Hindi film, based on Bhanot and the highjacking, with Sonam Kapoor playing title role of Neerja.
The official trailer of the movie has been released by Fox Star Studios.
The civil aviation ministry of India conferred an honour on Neerja Bhanot posthumously on 18 February 2010 in New Delhi on the occasion of the launch of the celebrations of the centenary of Indian aviation.