On a cross-country red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Boston, ten passengers awaken to find that the crew and most of their fellow passengers have disappeared.
The ten remaining passengers are Brian Engle, an off-duty airline pilot traveling to Boston to attend his ex-wife's funeral; Dinah Bellman, a young blind girl with minor psychic powers; fifth-grade teacher Laurel Stevenson, who takes to watching over Dinah; Nick Hopewell, a junior attache & "mechanic" for the British Embassy; Don Gaffney, a retired tool-and-die engineer on a trip to see his grandchild; Rudy Warwick, a businessman; Albert Kaussner, a talented teen violinist heading to a prestigious school of the arts; Bethany Simms, a teenager being sent by her family to rehab; Bob Jenkins, a mystery author who acts as the voice of logic; and Craig Toomey, an irritable investment banker on the verge of a psychotic breakdown. They realize only those sleeping are now left on the plane. Engle takes control and lands the plane in Bangor, Maine for safety reasons, despite Toomey's protests.
Upon arrival, the airport is abandoned with no signs of life. There are no odors, electricity, or echoes. Food and drinks are tasteless and matches simply sputter out. They soon hear "radio static" in the distance. Craig believes it is "The Langoliers", monsters he was afraid of as a child who go after those who waste time.
Unable to get to his business meeting, Craig snaps, hallucinating his abusive, Type A personality father, and takes Bethany as a hostage. He shoots Albert, who escapes injury since the bullet has no energy. Craig is then subdued and tied up.
Bob begins to theorize that they have flown through a time rip, resembling the aurora borealis, that the airline spotted over the Mojave Desert. Bob declares that the world they are in is the past, a place that forbids time travelers to observe or interfere with past events, instead being a deserted world that "time" and everything else has left behind. To get back, Bob theorizes, they must fly back through the aurora.
The survivors work together to refuel the plane. Since it still holds "present time", which Albert discovers by noting how much brighter the plane appears compared to the rest of the world, fuel will burn properly, unlike the combustible materials in the gun and matches.
Craig, now completely insane, escapes and rampages through the airport. Believing the others to be manifestations of the Langoliers, he stabs Dinah in the chest and kills Don. Albert subdues Craig and leaves him badly injured on the airport floor.
While the plane is in its final preparations Dinah telepathically communicates with Craig and persuades him that his board meeting is being held on the runway. Craig makes his way outside and hallucinates arriving at the meeting, but has a breakdown before his boss and screams that he deliberately cost the company millions, ensuring his eventual firing and disgrace as a way of getting even with his father & putting his demons to rest.
It turns out that Craig is right, in a way. Two creatures, followed by hundreds more, emerge from the forest and head for the plane, consuming everything in their path. Brian describes them in horror as large dark beach ball-like monsters expanding and contracting with semicircular caves as mouths and gnashing blurring teeth leaving trails of black nothingness in their wake. Craig flees in terror and heads for the refuge of the terminal. The first two Langoliers follow him past the plane, leaving Engle enough time to get the plane moving towards the runway. Though Craig nearly escapes, the Langoliers catch up with him after biting off his legs and eat him, killing him.
In the plane, Bob theorizes that the Langoliers are the timekeepers of eternity, and that their purpose is to clean up what is left of the past by eating it. The plane takes off, and as they fly the passengers watch the rest of the land below falling into a formless, black void. As the aircraft heads for Los Angeles, they discuss their pasts. Nick reveals himself as a specialist in the British Army, on a mission to assassinate the girlfriend of a Boston politician funding the IRA. Dinah speaks to Laurel about how her life is ending happily, then quietly succumbs to her injuries. Nick confesses his feelings for Laurel and his hopes of a romance with her after returning home. Albert and Bethany reveal a similar attraction to each other. All the characters realize that they have considerable regrets in their pasts, and that the trip through the rift has allowed them to come to terms with their actions.
Bob soon realizes that they must be asleep to survive going through the rift again. Nick volunteers to manipulate the controls, knowing full well this will cost him his life. He takes a moment to ask Laurel to pass a message to his father, telling that he, Nick, was going to leave the "business." The cabin pressure is decreased and all fall into a deep sleep. Nick vanishes as the plane passes through the rift, leaving only the fillings from his teeth and an artificial knee behind. (In the TV version, only his watch remains.)
The survivors awaken unharmed, with the exception of nosebleeds caused by the pressure drop. Seemingly, nothing has changed. The plane lands in a deserted Los Angeles. When they check outside, the passengers again hear a noise. It is not the ominous sound of the Langoliers, but a relaxing hum. Inside the airport, sounds echo and food has taste. Bob & Albert conclude that the time rift brought them into the future and that this is not a dead world, but one waiting for the present to catch up. The group takes shelter against the wall to avoid the soon-to-appear human traffic in the airport. They begin to see colors with holograms of people and activity going on. A flash hits them and they find themselves in the present again. Happy to be back, the group goes outside for some fresh air.
The audiobook version of The Langoliers is read by Willem Dafoe.