Airline Germanwings has said that there were 144 passengers and six crew on board the Airbus A320 which crashed in a remote area of the French Alps today.
As search and rescue teams race to the region, French president Francois Hollande warned that no-one on board is expected to have lived after Germanwings flight 4U 9525 from Barcelona to Dusseldorf went down in the mountainous region.
Manager Oliver Wagner did not say whether there were any survivors, and added it was not currently possible to give more information on how the accident occurred.
“I promise that we will do everything to clear up the events thoroughly,” he said. “We are endlessly sorry for what has happened.”
The crash site is situated at Meolans-Revels, near the popular ski resort of Pra Loup, according to Eric Ciotti, the head of the regional council in south-east France.
Surrounded by mountains and with few clear trails to the snow-covered area, gaining access to the crash site is expected to take some time.
The owner of a camping ground near the crash site, Pierre Polizzi, said he heard the aircraft making curious noises shortly before it crashed.
He said: “I heard a series of loud noises in the air. There are often fighter jets flying over, so I thought it sounded just like that. I looked outside, but I couldn’t see any fighter planes.
“The noise I heard was long – like eight seconds – as if the plane was going more slowly than a military plane speed. There was another long noise after about 30 seconds.”
Mr Polizzi said the plane crashed roughly five-to-10 miles from the campsite.
He added: “It’s going to be very difficult to get there. The mountain is snowy and very hostile.”
The Germanwings Airbus A320 plane left Barcelona at 9.55am local time, sent out a distress signal at 10.45am (9.45am Irish time), then crashed in a mountainous zone at an altitude of about 6,550 feet, according to Pierre-Henry Brandet, the French interior ministry spokesman.
Update - Authorities confirm last words from Germanwings A320 distress call were "emergency, emergency"— Mark White (@skymarkwhite) March 24, 2015
Mr Brandet told BFM television he expects “an extremely long and extremely difficult” search and rescue operation owing to the crash site’s remote location.
Germanwings is a lower-cost unit of Lufthansa, Germany’s biggest airline. It has been operating since 2002, part of traditional national carriers’ response to the rise of European budget airlines. It serves mainly European destinations.
There are no obvious reasons why the plane went down. Captain Benoit Zeisser of the Digne-le-Bains police said there had been cloudy conditions in the region, but the cloud ceiling was not low and there did not appear to have been any turbulence.
The A320 plane is a workhorse of modern aviation. Similar to the Boeing 737, the single-aisle, twin-engine jet is used to connect cities that are between one and five hours apart.
Worldwide, 3,606 A320s are in operation, according to Airbus.
The A320 family has a good safety record, with just 0.14 fatal accidents per million take-offs, according to a Boeing safety analysis.
The safest part of a flight is when the plane is at cruise elevation. Just 10% of fatal accidents occur at that point. In contrast, take-off and the initial climb accounts for 14% of crashes, while final approach and landing accounts for 47%.
The A320 is certified to fly up to 39,000ft, its maximum altitude before its rate of climb begins to erode. It can begin to experience problems as low as 37,000ft, depending on temperature and weight, including fuel, cargo and passengers.
In a live briefing, Mr Hollande said it was likely that a number of the victims were German. He said it was not clear whether anyone on the ground had been injured by the crash.
“It’s a tragedy on our soil,” he said.
Later he spoke with German chancellor Angela Merkel to express his condolences.
Her spokesman said Ms Merkel was “deeply shocked” by the crash and had cancelled all other appointments for the day.
Spanish deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria told reporters in Seville there were 45 people aboard the plane with Spanish last names, but authorities have not confirmed how many of them were Spanish.
Meanwhile, King Felipe of Spain has cancelled his state visit to France.
The German federal bureau of aircraft accident investigation said it was sending three people to France to join the investigation. French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, the country’s top security official, and the German ambassador in Paris were among those headed to the crash site.
San Jose, the Spanish airport authority spokesman, said his agency was working with Germanwings to contact relatives of the victims.
Spain’s king and queen are currently in Paris for a previously-planned state visit.
Carsten Spohr, the CEO of Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, said he does not yet have any information about what happened to the flight.
In a tweet released by Lufthansa, he said: “My deepest sympathy is with all the relatives and friends of our passengers and crew on 4U 9525.
“If our fears are confirmed, this is a dark day for Lufthansa. We hope to find survivors.”
The last time a passenger jet crashed in France was the 2000 Concorde accident, which left 113 dead – 109 in the plane and four on the ground.
In Madrid, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy suspended his agenda to preside over an emergency government meeting about the crash, and also talked with Ms Merkel.
“Like everyone, I lament this incredibly sad and dramatic accident,” Mr Rajoy said.
German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “In these difficult hours, our thoughts are will all those who must fear that their relatives are among the passengers or crew.”
He added that his ministry had set up a crisis unit and is in close contact with French authorities.