A Russian passenger plane carrying 224 passengers and crew members crashed shortly after take off from Sharm El Sheik, a popular Red Sea resort in the Sinai Peninsula.
The Airbus A321, operated by Russia’s Metrojet, was descending at about 6,000 feet per minute before communication with the flight was lost, 23 minutes after leaving Sharm El Sheik International Airport, according to Flightradar.com, which tracks flight routes. The plane had reached a cruising altitude of 31,000 feet, Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said in an e-mailed statement on Saturday.
At that altitude, it is “very unusual for something to happen,” Paul Hayes, director of safety at Ascend Worldwide Ltd., a London-based company that gathers air data for insurers, said.
The wreckage was found in the Al Hassana area of central Sinai, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from where Egyptian security forces have been waging a fierce campaign against militants in northern Sinai that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. An Egyptian investigation team has reached the crash site and started searching for the black boxes, civil aviation authorities said in a statement.
The Red Sea resort area, popular with Russian visitors, is a key part of tourism to Egypt. The industry is struggling to return to levels seen before a 2011 uprising that pushed President Hosni Mubarak out of power, deterring travelers and adding pressure on Egypt’s foreign-exchange revenues and hurting the local currency. Tourism generated $7.3 billion in the fiscal year ending June 30, compared to about $11 billion four years ago, according to central bank data.
About a fifth of all tourists visiting Egypt come from Russia, making it the largest source of vacationers to the North African country. Egypt was expecting a slight recovery in the tourism industry in 2015, with about 10 million visitors during the year -- a figure well below the 14 million tourists who visited the country in 2010.
The plane, which took off at 5:51 a.m. Cairo time, was headed for St. Petersburg, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry said.
A convoy of 45 ambulances has been sent to the crash area to evacuate casualties, Egypt’s Cabinet said an e-mailed statement. Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has canceled a visit to Ismailia and is heading a crisis management committee to follow the incident.
Ismail, asked by reporters if he suspected the plane may have been shot down, said that “the investigations haven’t started yet” and that a “specialized investigations team will begin these investigations.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences to the families of the passengers and ordered Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to form a commission to investigate the crash, while Russian investigators have been sent to Egypt, Interfax reported.
Russian state television said about 100 people, including children, had gathered at Pulkovo International Airport in St. Petersburg awaiting information about the flight.
Airbus spokesman Stefan Schaffrath said in a message that the company was “aware of the media reports and all efforts are now going towards assessing the situation.”
The Airbus A320 family is by far Airbus’s most popular plane type -- a single-aisle, twin-engine type typically used on shorter cross-continental routes that laid the foundation for the company’s success and established it alongside Boeing Co. to create a global duopoly for large passenger planes. The A321 is the longest variant of the plane, which comes in four sizes.
The A321 involved in the incident was about 18 years old had been in service with the airline since 2012, according to the database of Airfleets.net. The plane was powered by two IAE V2533-A5 engines, one of two choices of powerplants for that model.