An Air Algérie jetliner with 116 people on board traveling from Burkina Faso to Algeria has crashed in Mali, the airline said Thursday.
Air Algérie lost contact with Flight 5017 after takeoff from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, as the jetliner headed to Algiers, Algeria’s state news agency and the plane’s operator said Thursday.
The airline said the plane crashed In Tilemsi, Mali, which is about 70 miles from the city of Gao.
An Algerian civil aviation official, in an interview with Algerian TV station Ennahar, said the flight passing through Niger airspace before it crashed.
French Secretary of Transport Frédéric Cuvillier told reporters the plane disappeared over Northern Mali, where Islamist militants are fighting the Malian government and French forces.
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Contact with the Boeing MD-83, carrying 110 passengers and six crew members, was lost at about 1:55 a.m. local time, 50 minutes after the jet had taken off, the Algerian government’s official news agency said in a statement. “Air Algérie launched [an] emergency plan,” the agency added. It gave no other details.
The plane had been expected to land in Algiers at 6:10 a.m. local time, according to Swiftair, the Spanish charter company operating the jet for the Algerian flag carrier. “We have no contact with the airplane,” Swiftair said.
As many as 50 of the passengers on the missing plane were French nationals, Algeria’s state news agency reported on its website, citing Air Algérie. The plane was also carrying 24 passengers from Burkina Faso, 8 Lebanese, 6 Algerians, 5 Canadians, 4 Germans, the airline is reported to have said. The passenger list also includes two Luxembourg citizens as well as passengers from Mali, Belgium, Niger, Cameroon, Egypt, Ukraine, Romania, Switzerland.
All the six crew members aboard the plane are from Spain. The three remaining passengers’ nationality is being verified.
An official at the directorate of Ouagadougou Airport in Burkina Faso said there had been an incident, “but for the moment we don’t know anything more.” He refused to give his name because he wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters.
The missing plane has triggered a second global scramble among aviation regulators and safety officials in as many weeks, following the downing last week of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over war-torn eastern Ukraine.
It also follows a temporary flight ban imposed by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on American carriers using Tel Aviv airport, after a Hamas-fired rocket landed nearby earlier this week. The ban was lifted late Wednesday.
On Wednesday, forty-eight people died and 10 were injured after a TransAsia Airways plane went down in the outlying Penghu islands, off the coast of Taiwan.
The flight path of the missing Algerian jet isn’t yet clear but will likely be closely scrutinized given the recent questions by airline executives and regulators over whether MH17 should have been flying over eastern Ukraine.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has warned airlines to be extra vigilant when flying over Mali and gone as far as to ban U.S. carriers from flying over the African country at lower altitudes, citing “insurgent activity,” including the threat of antiaircraft missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and rockets.
Apart from worries about insurgent threats in Mali, the Algerian government has been keeping a close watch on airspace on its eastern border, where violence in Libya has led to flight bans there.
There is no indication the jet was shot down and no confirmation of a crash.
France’s foreign ministry said its embassies in Algeria and Burkina Faso were working with the airline and local authorities to locate the plane. France has a large military presence in the region with scores of troops operating in Mali, a landlocked country wedged between Algeria and Burkina Faso.
“We are totally mobilized,” a French foreign ministry spokesman said.
French forces stationed in Africa reassigned two Mirage 2000 fighter jets that were on a surveillance mission over northern Mali to search the area for traces of the aircraft, French army spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said. “I have no information about any findings yet,” he said.
Algeria has also dispatched a plane to Mali to search for the missing Air Algérie flight, according to a Malian government official said.
Mali’s Communication Minister Mamadou Camara said the planes are searching a huge and sparsely populated swath of his West African country where the Air Algérie flight was last known to be flying.
“The zone is extremely vast,” Mr. Camara said, adding that he had no further information about the circumstances under which the plane went missing. “To confirm that this plane crashed you must first find the site of the crash,” he said.
Officials at Burkina Faso’s National Civil Aviation Agency have set up a crisis room to field calls and assess reports on what might have happened to the missing plane. As phones rang loudly and officials shouted over each other in the background, one of the officials, Zoure Nana Guissou, said “We’re in the process of assembling the info as quickly as we can.”
The government’s fast reaction illustrates how African air safety management has changed in recent years. A decade ago, when Africa accounted for about 25% of world-wide aviation fatalities but less than 4% of global traffic, governments often reacted slowly and chaotically to frequent accidents. While many African governments still lack resources to carefully monitor carriers, safety has improved significantly.
Outside assistance and pressure from the U.S., European Union and other regions has been a big factor, as has the arrival of more foreign carriers drawn by Africa’s growing economies and resource boom. As a result, countries including Russia and Indonesia in some recent years have had worse safety records than much of Africa.
Nevertheless, accident rates in Africa remain typically higher than in the rest of the world as the continent struggles with poor infrastructure that has made flying there more difficult.
The International Air Transport Association said there were 61 accidents in the region between 2009 and 2013. The accident rate during the period was 13.47 crashes per million flight hours in Africa compared with the global average of 2.51 crashes.
IATA and the International Civil Aviation Organization have embarked on a program to lift African airline safety performance to global standards by next year.
Swiftair operated two MD-83s planes for Air Algérie, one built in 1989 and the other in 1996, according to AeroTransport Data Bank, a French company that tracks airplanes. Closely-held Swiftair was established in 1986 and has a fleet of more than 30 planes. Most of the jets are older models such as Boeing 727s and 737s, as well as MD-83s.
All six crew aboard the missing Air Algérie airplane are Spanish nationals, according to Spain’s main pilots’ union.