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Airline CEO: Plane Descended For 8 Minutes Before Crash

Family of passengers on the Germanwings plane that crashed Tuesday arrive at Barcelona airport.

Updated at 11:42 a.m.

A Germanwings plane flying from Barcelona, Spain, to Duesseldorf, Germany, descended for eight minutes shortly after reaching cruising altitude, and then crashed in the southern French Alps, the airline's CEO said Tuesday. All 150 people onboard — 144 passengers and six crew — are feared dead, French officials said.

At a news conference, Germanwings CEO Thomas Winkelmann said at 10:45 a.m. local time, the Airbus A320 was at a height of 10,000 feet. That's when it began to go "straight down" for eight minutes, he said, speaking through an interpreter. It was at 6,000 feet at 10:53 a.m., he said, when contact with French radar stopped.

"That's when the accident happened," he said.

He said that "at the moment there's no clear indication on the reasons why the descent flight was actually initiated."

There is contradictory information on whether the plane issued a distress signal before it crashed.

Winkelmann said the aircraft had left Duesseldorf at 6:48 a.m. local time Tuesday morning and flown to Barcelona. Flight 4U 9525 then left Barcelona at 10:01 a.m., Winkelmann said. The aircraft was scheduled to land in Duesseldorf at 11:39 a.m., according to Flightaware.com.

Winkelmann said the aircraft was delivered to Lufthansa in 1991 and had been operating for Germanwings, a low-cost Lufthansa subsidiary, since 2004. Its last routine check was Monday, he said, in Duesseldorf. Its last major inspection was in the summer of 2013, he said. Winkelmann said the captain who flew the plane was an experienced pilot who had flown for Lufthansa and Germanwings for 10 years.

The nationalities of the passengers is not being released pending notification of kin, Germanwings said.

The exact location of the crash is unclear. We do know the Airbus A320 crashed in a remote part of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region. Eric Ciotti, head of the regional council in southeast France, said the crash site was Meolans-Revels, near the popular ski resort of Pra Loup. But Airbus said the crash occurred in nearby Prads-Haute-Bleone.

Earlier, French President Francois Hollande said: "The conditions of the accident suggest there would be no survivors." On Twitter, he expressed his condolences to the victims' families. German Chancellor Angel Merkel was "shaken" at the news of the crash, her spokesman Steffen Seibert said. Spanish President Mariano Rajoy called the crash a "tragedy."

Alain Vidal, France's secretary of state for transportation, told Europe 1 that the plane crashed in an area that is inaccessible by road. He said helicopters flying overhead spotted the debris and some bodies. Local officials said rescue workers were airlifted to the site.

The A320 is one of the most popular planes in the world for short- and medium-haul flights. In a statement, Airbus said:

"The aircraft involved in the accident, registered under D-AIPX was MSN (Manufacturer Serial Number) 147 delivered to Lufthansa from the production line in 1991. The aircraft had accumulated approximately 58,300 flight hours in some 46,700 flights. It was powered by CFM 56-5A1 engines."

Le Monde says Tuesday's crash is the deadliest in French territory since 1981, when 180 people died in the crash of an Inex-Adria Aviopromet plane at Mount San Pietro. In July 2000, an Air France Concorde flying between Paris and New York crashed during takeoff near Paris, killing 113 people.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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