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150 aboard feared dead in Airbus A320 crash in French Alps

An Airbus A320 crash in southern France may have claimed the lives of all 150 people on board, in what would be the worst air accident on French soil in decades.

Germanwings Flight 9525 operated by the low-cost subsidiary of Deutsche Lufthansa AG went down in the French Alps en route from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, following a rapid descent from cruising altitude, France’s civil aviation authority said. Wreckage has been sighted, and French President Francois Hollande said there are unlikely to be any survivors.

“This is a tragedy that has happened on French soil,” Hollande said in Paris. “We need to show all support in the face of this drama.”

The crash is likely to be the worst air accident in at least three decades in France and is the first for Germanwings. The A320 single-aisle jet, an industry workhorse used on shorter distances, is Airbus’s most popular model, and the planes are typically operated with about 150 passengers. Germanwings said 144 passengers and six crew were on the plane.

French air traffic controllers in the region declared an emergency at 10:47 a.m. as they saw the plane descending rapidly, said Eric Heraud, a spokesman for French civil aviation authority DGAC. The plane plummeted from 38,000 feet (11,600 meters) to 5,000 feet while flying over the town of Barcelonnette in the Alpes de Haute-Provence region, he said.

Rapid Descent

Flight-tracking service FlightAware showed the plane cruising on a northeasterly heading at about 38,000 feet before it suddenly began a steep descent, shedding more than 25,000 feet of altitude in seven minutes.

“Although we did track the airplane in the descent to 11,400 feet, the final position reflects the end of our flight tracking coverage for this flight and does not indicate the accident site,” FlightAware Chief Executive Officer Daniel Baker said in an e-mailed statement. “Only the French government will definitively provide that information.”

France’s accident investigator, BEA, is opening an investigation immediately, said spokeswoman Martine Del Bono. The organization has oversight for all air crashes on French territory and would also participate in any investigation involving a plane made by a French company

The crash is the deadliest on French soil since 1981, when a DC-9 jetliner flown by Inex Adria Aviopromet went down near Mont San-Pietro and killed 180 people, according to data compiled by Aviation Safety Network, a project of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation.

France’s only accident this century even approaching the scope of the Germanwings disaster occurred in 2000, when an Air France Concorde struck runway debris on takeoff and was engulfed in flames, killing all 109 people on the supersonic jet and four on the ground.

German, French and Spanish authorities have set up crisis- response teams, and Hollande said he’s coordinating efforts with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. Merkel “is deeply shocked by the German aircraft’s crash,” Steffen Seibert, her chief spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. Merkel has canceled other appointments and will keep up-to-date on developments in the hours ahead, he said.

Germanwings operates Deutsche Lufthansa’s European routes outside of the German carrier’s main Frankfurt and Munich hubs. The move was designed for Lufthansa to better compete against budget carriers in Europe. Lufthansa, like its European peers, has come under pressure to lower costs as more people opt for no-frills airlines on shorter distances.

Alpine Region

The plane went down in rugged terrain, according to Hollande, who is coordinating a crisis response with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The actual crash site is at a higher altitude in the Le Vernet, near Prads-Haute-Bleone. Firemen and rescue teams are reaching the area, which is is about 58 miles northwest of Nice and 25 miles west of the Italian border, in a region of Provence popular with hikers and campers in the summer.

Radar images from Meteo-France showed no showers in the area at 10:30 a.m., minutes before the reported crash time.

Airbus said it’s focusing “all efforts” on assessing the situation, and that it’s been informed about an accident that involves one of the Toulouse, France-based products. The A320 aircraft is by far Airbus’s most widely flown model, and the aircraft has been popular with carriers around the world because it serves a key segment of the market and is equipped with advanced technologies such as fly-by-wire controls.