Flight-tracking service FlightAware showed the plane cruising on a northeasterly heading at about 38,000 feet before it suddenly began a steep descent, shedding more than 25,000 feet of altitude in seven minutes.
â€œAlthough we did track the airplane in the descent to 11,400 feet, the final position reflects the end of our flight tracking coverage for this flight and does not indicate the accident site,â€ FlightAware Chief Executive Officer Daniel Baker said in an e-mailed statement. â€œOnly the French government will definitively provide that information.â€
Franceâ€™s accident investigator, BEA, is opening an investigation immediately, said spokeswoman Martine Del Bono. The organization has oversight for all air crashes on French territory and would also participate in any investigation involving a plane made by a French company
The crash is the deadliest on French soil since 1981, when a DC-9 jetliner flown by Inex Adria Aviopromet went down near Mont San-Pietro and killed 180 people, according to data compiled by Aviation Safety Network, a project of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation.
Franceâ€™s only accident this century even approaching the scope of the Germanwings disaster occurred in 2000, when an Air France Concorde struck runway debris on takeoff and was engulfed in flames, killing all 109 people on the supersonic jet and four on the ground.
German, French and Spanish authorities have set up crisis-response teams, and Hollande said heâ€™s coordinating efforts with German Chancellor Angela Merkelâ€™s government. Merkel â€œis deeply shocked by the German aircraftâ€™s crash,â€ Steffen Seibert, her chief spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. Merkel has canceled other appointments and will keep up-to-date on developments in the hours ahead, he said.
Germanwings operates Deutsche Lufthansaâ€™s European routes outside of the German carrierâ€™s main Frankfurt and Munich hubs. The move was designed for Lufthansa to better compete against budget carriers in Europe. Lufthansa, like its European peers, has come under pressure to lower costs as more people opt for no-frills airlines on shorter distances.
The plane went down in rugged terrain, according to Hollande, who is coordinating a crisis response with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The actual crash site is at a higher altitude in the Le Vernet, near Prads-Haute-Bleone. Firemen and rescue teams are reaching the area, which is is about 58 miles northwest of Nice and 25 miles west of the Italian border, in a region of Provence popular with hikers and campers in the summer.
Radar images from Meteo-France showed no showers in the area at 10:30 a.m., minutes before the reported crash time. A weather station in Seyne, less than 10 kilometers north of reported crash site, measured winds of 3 kilometers per hour at the time with gusts up to 9.7 kilometers per hour, a light breeze on the Beaufort scale.
Airbus said itâ€™s focusing â€œall effortsâ€ on assessing the situation, and that itâ€™s been informed about an accident that involves one of the Toulouse, France-based products. The A320 aircraft is by far Airbusâ€™s most widely flown model, and the aircraft has been popular with carriers around the world because it serves a key segment of the market and is equipped with advanced technologies such as fly-by-wire controls.
Germanwings plans to hold a press conference at about 3 p.m. in Cologne to provide an update, with Lufthansa Chief Executive Officer Carsten Spohr briefing the public an hour earlier. At Dusseldorf airport, where the plane was due to land shortly before noon, local crisis-response teams were on standby to assist relatives.
â€œAs soon as definite information is available, we shall inform the media immediately,â€ the airline said.
Airbus dropped as much as 3.1 percent in Paris trading, while Lufthansa fell as much as 6 percent in Frankfurt.
Spohr said in a message that the company doesnâ€™t yet know what happened, though that â€œif our fears are confirmed, this is a dark day for Lufthansa.â€-Bloomberg