A China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 with 132 people on board crashed in mountains in southern China on a domestic flight on Monday following a sudden descent from cruising altitude.
Media said there was no sign of survivors and the airline said it deeply mourned the passengers and crew who had died.
The plane was flying from the southwestern city of Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, bordering Hong Kong.
China Eastern said the cause of the crash, in which the plane descended at a final rate of 31,000 feet a minute according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24, was under investigation.
The airline said it had provided a hotline for relatives of those on board and sent a working group to the site.
Media cited a rescue official as saying the plane had disintegrated and caused a fire destroying bamboo trees. The People’s Daily quoted a provincial firefighting department official as saying there was no sign of life among the debris.
The aircraft, with 123 passengers and nine crew on board, lost contact over the city of Wuzhou, China’s Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and the airline said.
The flight left Kunming at 1:11 p.m. (0511 GMT), FlightRadar24 data showed, and had been due to land in Guangzhou at 3:05 p.m. (0705 GMT).
The plane, which Flightradar24 said was six years old, had been cruising at an altitude 29,100 feet at 0620 GMT. Just over two minutes and 15 seconds later, data showed it had descended to 9,075 feet.
In another 20 seconds, its last tracked altitude was 3,225 feet.
Crashes during the cruise phase of flight are relatively rare even though it accounts for the majority of flight time.
Boeing found in a report last year that only 13% of fatal commercial accidents globally between 2011 and 2020 occurred during the cruise phase, whereas 28% of fatal accidents occurred on final approach and 26% on landing.
“Usually the plane is on auto-pilot during cruise stage. So it is very hard to fathom what happened,” said Li Xiaojin, a Chinese aviation expert. “From a technical point of view, something like this should not have happened.”
Online weather data showed partly cloudy conditions with good visibility in Wuzhou at the time of the crash.
President Xi Jinping called for investigators to determine the cause of the crash as soon as possible and to ensure “absolute” aviation safety, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
A Boeing spokesperson said: “We are aware of the initial media reports and are working to gather more information.”
Shares of Boeing Co were down 6.4% at $180.44 in premarket trade.
Shares in China Eastern Airlines in Hong Kong closed down 6.5% after news of the crash broke, while its U.S.-listed shares slumped 17% in premarket trading.
China Eastern grounded its fleet of 737-800 planes after the crash, state media reported. China Eastern has 109 of the aircraft in its fleet, according to FlightRadar24.
Aviation data provider OAG said this month that state-owned China Eastern Airlines was the world’s sixth largest by scheduled weekly seat capacity and the biggest in China.
The 737-800 has a good safety record and is the predecessor to the 737 MAX model that has been grounded in China for more than three years following fatal crashes in 2018 in Indonesia and 2019 in Ethiopia.
The safety record of China’s airline industry has been among the best in the world over the past decade.
“The CAAC has very rigid safety regulations and we will just need to wait for more details to help shed light on the plausible cause of the accident,” said Shukor Yusof, head of Malaysia-based aviation consultancy Endau Analytics. Investigators will be looking to recover the plane’s two so-called black boxes – the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder – to help shed light on the crash.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it was ready to assist with China’s investigation if asked.
China’s aviation safety record, while good, is also less transparent than in countries like the United States and Australia where regulators release detailed reports on non-fatal incidents, said Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor at industry publication Flightglobal.
“This makes it hard to get a sense of the true situation with Chinese carriers,” he said. “There have been concerns that there is some underreporting of safety lapses on the mainland.”
According to Aviation Safety Network, China’s last fatal jet accident was in 2010, when 44 of 96 people on board were killed when an Embraer E-190 regional jet flown by Henan Airlines crashed on approach to Yichun airport in low visibility.
In 1994, a China Northwest Airlines Tupolev Tu-154 crashed en route from Xian to Guangzhou, killing all 160 people on board and ranking as China’s worst-ever air disaster, according to Aviation Safety Network.
(Reporting by Beijing and Shanghai newsrooms and Jamie Freed in Sydney; additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)
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Photo credit: China Eastern Airlines aircraft are seen parked on the tarmac in Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai in June 2020. The airline had a fatal crash of on of its Boeing planes today. Aly Song / Reuters