The Germanwings Airbus A320 plane left Barcelona at 9.55am, sent out a distress signal at 10.45am, then crashed in a mountainous zone in France at an altitude of about 2,000 metres (6,550 feet), said Pierre-Henry Brandet, the French interior ministry spokesman.
Brandet told BFM television he expected “an extremely long and extremely difficult” search and rescue operation because of the area’s remoteness.
Germanwings is a lower-cost unit of Lufthansa, Germany’s biggest airline. It has been operating since 2002, part of traditional national carriers’ response from rising European budget carriers. It serves mainly European destinations.
Germanwings official Oliver Wagner told German television that the plane carried 144 passengers and 6 crew members on board. He did not give a breakdown of nationalities.
The Germanwings logo, normally maroon and yellow, was blacked out on its Twitter feed.
There was no obvious reason why the plane went down. Capt Benoit Zeisser of the Digne-le-Bains police said there were some clouds in the region but the cloud ceiling was not low and there did not appear to be turbulence.
In addition, the safest part of a flight is when the plane is at cruising elevation. Just 10 per cent of fatal accidents occur at that point, according to a safety analysis by Boeing. In contrast, takeoff and the initial climb accounts for 14 per cent of crashes and final approach and landing accounts for 47 per cent.
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 between one and five hours apart. Worldwide, 3,606 A320s are in operation, according to Airbus.
The A320 is certified to fly up to 39,000 feet but it can begin to experience problems as low as 37,000 feet, depending on temperature and weight, including fuel, cargo and passengers.
The A320 family also has a good safety record, with just 0.14 fatal accidents per million takeoffs, according to a Boeing safety analysis.
In a live briefing Tuesday, 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.
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.
Later Hollande spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to express his condolences. Merkel was “deeply shocked” by the crash and cancelled all other appointments for the day, her spokesman said.
“In these difficult hours, our thoughts are will all those who must fear that their relatives are among the passengers or crew,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, adding his ministry had set up a crisis unit and was in close contact with French authorities.
The German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation 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 heading to the crash site.
In Madrid, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy suspended his agenda to preside over an emergency government meeting about the crash and also talked with Merkel.
“Like everyone, I lament this incredibly sad and dramatic accident,” Rajoy said.
Antonio San Jose, spokesman for the Spanish airport authority AENA, said his agency was working with Germanwings to reach out to relatives of the victims.
Spain’s king and queen, in Paris on Tuesday, canceled their previously planned state visit and offered their condolences to all who lost a loved one in the crash.