, PARIS, June 1 – An Air France jet carrying 228 people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris was feared to have crashed into the Atlantic on Monday after suffering an electrical failure while flying through a fierce storm.
Air France said the Airbus A330-200 jet was probably hit by lightning, the airline said. The Brazilian and French air forces sent out search planes and other countries were on alert.
If it is confirmed that all 228 people were killed it would be the worst loss of life in Air France’s history and civil aviation’s worst accidental disaster for more than a decade.
"We are without a doubt faced with an aviation catastrophe. The entire company is thinking of the families and shares their pain," Air France chief executive Pierre-Henri Gourgeon told reporters.
French Ecology Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said hijacking had been ruled out and that the plane had probably had some kind of accident.
"There’s nothing on Spanish radar, nothing on Moroccan radar, nothing on French radar. We can seriously envisage the worst," Borloo said.
The minister told AFP there were "powerful" tropical storms in the zone. "It is the kind of jet made to handle this kind of circumstance but there must have been a build up of circumstances," he said.
Flight AF 447 sent an automatic error message reporting a fault in an electrical circuit at 0214 GMT, just over four hours after it left Rio, Gourgeon said.
"The most likely thing is that the plane was hit by lightning. The plane was in a stormy area with strong turbulence, which provoked problems," Francois Brousse, Air France’s director of communications, said separately.
Borloo was among top French officials sent to Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport, where relatives of the 216 passengers and 12 crew were being cared for by doctors and psychologists.
The passengers were made up of 126 men, 82 women, seven children and a baby, Air France said. There were nine flight attendants and three flight crew.
Three Italians, three Moroccans and two Lebanese were among those on board, according to reports and officials. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told Sky Television that he "feared they may be British citizens aboard."
Flight AF 447 left Rio at about 7:00pm (2200 GMT) on Sunday night for the 9,145 kilometre (5,282 mile) flight which would normally take 10 hours and 20 minutes.
The Brazilian air force said its planes had scrambled to search for the jet off its northeast coast. A French military reconnaissance plane also flew out of Senegal to take part in the search.
French authorities set up a crisis cell and President Nicolas Sarkozy was to go to Charles de Gaulle airport.
Sarkozy’s office said he had ordered all relevant government agencies to hunt "for any sign of the plane and to quickly shine a light on the reasons for its disappearance."
Air France said that the crew was experienced, the flight captain alone had 11,000 flying hours under his belt, and Airbus said the plane itself had made 2,500 flights totalling 18,800 hours.
Air France shares slipped after the news. Last week the airline announced its first net loss since it merged with Dutch airline KLM in 2003.
The company suffered from the Concorde disaster nine years ago and has since had a number of accidents and scares.
All 109 passengers and crew and four people on the ground were killed when an Air France Concorde crashed near Charles de Gaulle airport on July 25, 2000. All Concordes were eventually taken out of service.
On August 3, 2005, an Air France A340 with 309 passengers and crew on board skidded off the runway after landing in a thunder storm at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Fourteen people suffered minor injuries.
The BNPParibas share fell briefly on the Paris stock market as rumours — strongly denied by the French bank — circulated, saying that one of its leaders was on the ill-fated jet.