The Air Algerie commercial flight that crashed Thursday in Mali was traveling over a region the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had warned airlines about in a notice to airmen earlier this year. The jet, leased to the North African carrier by Spanish airline Swiftair, was carrying 110 passengers and six crew members from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to Algiers.
French Secretary of Transport Frederic Cuvillier told reporters that AH5017, which disappeared over northern Mali, was carrying a “large number of French passengers,” and its government was actively involved in the search.
Algerian news agency APS published a list of passengers that included 51 French, 27 Burkina Faso nationals, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two Luxembourgers, one Swiss, one Belgian, one Egyptian, one Ukrainian, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian and one Malian. However, AFP is reporting that "at least 20" passengers were Lebanese. The six crew members were Spanish, according to the Spanish pilots' union.
Flight AH5017 left Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, for Algiers on Thursday at 1:17 a.m. local time. The McDonnell Douglas MD-83 jet lost contact with air traffic control 50 minutes into the flight, after the pilot had asked permission to change route because of a sandstorm, said Burkina Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo.
The French air force dispatched two Mirage 2000 fighter jets based in Mali to locate the downed plane, said spokesman Col. Gilles Jarron. They found the wreckage near the town of Tlemsi. France has troops in Mali to fight an Islamic insurgency.
While the plane’s exact flight path was not immediately clear, it is sure to come under scrutiny during a week in which three aviation disasters have occurred. Concerns over planes flying through conflict regions are heightened after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine last week, and many airlines have canceled flights to Israel amid concerns about rocket strikes near the Tel Aviv airport.
Because Ouagadougou is almost directly south of Algiers, it is likely that the plane traveled over the desert in northern Mali, a region plagued by unrest. Militant Islamist separatist groups, who are currently fighting the Malian government and French forces, control the area. But concerns of an attack that could shoot down the plane were quickly dismissed by French officials.
A senior French official, speaking under the condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that fighters in Mali possess only shoulder-fired weapons that could not reach an aircraft traveling at cruising altitude.
Still, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had cautioned airlines about traveling over Mali due to insurgent activity and explicitly forbade U.S. carriers from flying over the country at lower altitudes, citing threats of anti-aircraft missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and rockets.
Flight AH5017 was being operated by Swiftair, a Spanish charter company that has a fleet of more than 30 planes flying in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. According to the Aviation Safety Network, the airline has only had four accidents since it was founded in 1968.
Air Algerie, Algeria’s national carrier that flies to 28 countries, has a slightly less impressive record: It has had 29 safety incidents since 1947. The deadliest one occurred in March 2003 when a domestic flight crashed after takeoff, killing 102 on board, while one person survived.
Swiftair said in a statement that it had lost contact with the plane, which was built in 1996 and has two Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 engines. According to the AP, Swiftair took ownership of the plane in October of last year after the jet spent 10 months in storage. The missing plane had more than 37,800 hours of flight time and had more than 32,100 takeoffs and landings. It had been previously owned by several airlines, including Avianca of Colombia and Austral Lineas Aereas of Argentina.
Patrick Gandil, head of France’s civil aviation authority, said the Boeing-owned McDonnell Douglas jet “passed through France in Marseille two or three days ago. We examined it and found almost nothing. It was really in good condition,” reports The Telegraph.
The disappearance of AH5017 comes after another one of Algeria’s worst air disasters in February, when a C-130 Hercules military transport crashed in the mountains of eastern Algeria, killing 77 of the 78 people on board.