BEIJING, March 21 (Reuters) – A China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 (600115.SS) with 132 people on board crashed in the mountains of southern China on a domestic flight on Monday after a sudden descent cruising altitude. Media said there were no signs of survivors.
The airline said it deeply mourned the passengers and crew, without specifying how many people had been killed.
Chinese media showed brief highway video footage from a vehicle’s dashcam apparently showing a jet plunging to the ground behind trees at an angle of about 35 degrees from vertical. Reuters could not immediately verify the images.
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The plane was en route from the southwestern city of Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, bordering Hong Kong, when it crashed.
China Eastern said the cause of the crash, in which the plane descended at 31,000 feet per minute according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24, was under investigation.
The airline said it provided a hotline for relatives of those on board and sent a task force to the site. There were no foreigners on the flight, Chinese state television reported, citing China Eastern.
Media quoted a rescue official as saying the plane disintegrated and started a fire destroying bamboo. The People’s Daily quoted a provincial fire department official as saying there were no signs of life among the debris.
State media showed a piece of the plane on a hill of scarred dirt. There were no signs of fire or personal effects.
The plane, with 123 passengers and nine crew on board, lost contact over the city of Wuzhou, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and the airline said.
The flight left Kunming at 1:11 p.m. (05:11 GMT), according to data from FlightRadar24, and was scheduled to land in Guangzhou at 3:05 p.m. (07:05 GMT).
The plane, which Flightradar24 said was six years old, was flying at 29,100 feet at 0620 GMT. Just over two minutes and 15 seconds later, data showed he had descended to 9,075 feet.
Twenty seconds later, his last recorded altitude was 3,225 feet.
Accidents during the cruise phase of flights are relatively rare even though this phase accounts for the majority of flight time. Boeing said last year that only 13% of fatal commercial accidents worldwide between 2011 and 2020 occurred during the cruise phase, while 28% occurred on final approach and 26% on landing.
“Usually the plane is on autopilot during the cruise phase, so it’s very difficult to figure out what happened,” said Li Xiaojin, a Chinese aviation expert.
Online weather data showed partly cloudy conditions with good visibility in Wuzhou at the time of the accident.
President Xi Jinping called on investigators to determine the cause of the crash as soon as possible, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
A Boeing spokesperson said, “We are aware of initial media reports and are working to gather more information.”
Shares of Boeing Co (BA.N) were down 5% at 1455 GMT.
Shares of China Eastern Airlines in Hong Kong closed 6.5% after news of the crash, while its U.S.-listed shares fell 17% in premarket trading.
China Eastern grounded its fleet of 737 to 800 planes after the crash, state media reported. China Eastern has 109 aircraft in its fleet, according to FlightRadar24.
Aeronautical data provider OAG said this month that state-owned China Eastern Airlines was the world’s sixth-largest carrier by planned weekly seat capacity.
The 737-800 has a good safety record and is the predecessor to the 737 MAX model which has been grounded in China for more than three years after fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
China’s aviation safety record has been among the best in the world for a decade.
“The CAAC has very rigid safety rules and we’ll just have to wait for more details,” said Shukor Yusof, director of Malaysia-based aviation consultancy Endau Analytics.
Investigators will search the plane’s black boxes – the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder – to shed light on the crash.
The US Federal Aviation Administration said it was ready to help with China’s investigation if asked.
China’s aviation safety record, while good, is less transparent than in countries like the United States and Australia where regulators publish detailed reports of non-fatal incidents, said Greg Waldron, editor. in chief for Asia at the industry publication Flightglobal.
“There have been concerns about the under-reporting of security breaches on the continent,” he said.
According to Aviation Safety Network, the last fatal plane crash in China was in 2010, when 44 of the 96 people on board were killed when an Embraer E-190 regional jet flown by Henan Airlines crashed approach to Yichun Airport.
In 1994, a China Northwest Airlines Tupolev Tu-154 flying from Xian to Guangzhou crashed, killing all 160 people on board in the worst aviation disaster in China’s history, according to Aviation Safety Network.
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Reporting from Beijing and Shanghai newsrooms and from Jamie Freed in Sydney; additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington Writing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Hugh Lawson
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