Air France 447 - Hopes fade for missing plane survivors

PARIS, France (CNN) -- The chances of finding any survivors from an Air France passenger jet that disappeared over the Atlantic were "very low," French President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted Monday.

Relatives of a passenger on the Air France jet await information at Rio de Janeiro's International airport.

Relatives of a passenger on the Air France jet await information at Rio de Janeiro's International airport.

"This is a catastrophe the likes of which Air France has never seen before," he told reporters at Charles de Gaulle International Airport, where he had met with relatives of the missing aboard the flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"I said the truth to them: the prospects of finding survivors are very low," he said.

Asked the nationalities of those aboard, he said most of them were Brazilians, but added, "That changes nothing, of course. They're victims. It doesn't matter about their nationality."

Air France said 80 Brazilians and 73 French citizens were on the missing flight, CNN affiliate TV Globo reported.

Sarkozy said French authorities had sent ships and planes to the area about 400 km from Brazil. "Our Spanish friends are helping us, Brazilians are helping us a lot as well."

He added that authorities were seeking the help of satellites that might be able to pick up signs of what happened to the four-year-old Airbus 330. "It's extremely hard because this is a huge area," he said.

No possibility was being excluded -- turbulence in the area was strong, but other planes were able to pass through it without incident, he said.

The plane had reported a problem with the electrical system, "but the specialists refuse for the moment to express themselves about any possibility," Sarkozy said.

The plane was likely the victim of a "huge catastrophe," said Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, the CEO of Air France, who also noted the electrical problems and turbulence.

The jet had also sent out a warning it had lost pressure, the Brazilian Air Force said. Video Watch aviation expert describe possible scenarios »

It lost contact with air traffic control between Galeao International Airport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris, the airline said Monday.

The Airbus A330 sent out an automatic signal warning of the electrical problems just after 02:00 GMT Monday (10 p.m. ET Sunday) as it flew "far from the coast," said an Air France spokeswoman, who declined to be identified. It had just entered a stormy area with strong turbulence, she said.

The jet was flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet and a speed of 521 mph, the air force said.

Among the passengers were 126 men, 82 women, seven children and a baby, in addition to the 12 crew members, Air France officials in Brazil told CNN.

Much of the route is out of radar contact, Brazilian Air Force Col. Henry Munhoz told TV Globo.

Brazil's air force launched a search near the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha in the Atlantic Ocean, 365 km (226 miles) from Brazil's coast, a spokesman for the air force told CNN.

Two Brazilian squadrons are searching for the plane, although it disappeared after it left the country's radar space, said the officer, who declined to be identified.

The flight, AF 447, took off from Rio de Janeiro's Galeao International Airport at 23:30 Sunday GMT (7:30 p.m. ET) for the 11-hour flight. It was scheduled to land in Paris at 09:10 GMT (5:10 a.m. ET).

Its last known contact occurred at 02:33 GMT, the Brazilian Air Force spokesman said.

It was expected to check in with air traffic controllers at 03:20 GMT but did not do so, the Brazilian Air Force said in a statement.

Brazilian authorities asked the air force to launch a search mission just over three hours later, at 06:30 GMT, the statement said.

The plane reported no problems before take-off, Joao Assuncao, Air France's manager in Brazil, told the country's Record TV.

The French ambassador to Senegal told BFMTV that French military aircraft had been dispatched to search around Cape Vert or Green Cape off the coast of the west African country.

The airline set up a crisis center at the Paris airport. It listed numbers for families to call -- 0 800 800 812 for people in France and 00 33 1 57 02 10 55 for families outside France.

Relatives of the passengers and crew could be seen entering an area of Terminal 2 set aside for them at the Paris airport.

Time line

2230 GMT Sunday Flight AF447 takes off from Rio's Airport do Galeao
0133 GMT Monday Plane makes last contact with Brazilian air traffic control
0148 GMT Plane disappears from radar
0220 GMT Plane fails to make scheduled radio contact
0530 GMT Brazilian Air Force launches search
0910 GMT Plane fails to make scheduled landing in Paris
Source: Brazilian Air Force

At a crisis center at the airport in Rio, relatives of the missing complained of a dearth of information from Air France, the Brazilian state news agency reported.

One relative who identified himself as Bernardo, said his brother, Romeo Amorim Souza and his wife were on the missing flight.

"I came to the airport because I wasn't finding information and my parents are very nervous," he told Agencia Brasil.

The missing A330 is about four years old and last underwent a maintenance check on April 16, the airline said.

CNN air travel expert Richard Quest said the twin-engine plane, a stalwart of transatlantic routes, had an impeccable safety record, with only one fatal incident involving a training flight in 1994.

"It has very good range, and is extremely popular with airlines because of its versatility," he said.

Its crew was composed of three pilots and nine cabin crew members, including a captain who has logged 11,000 hours in flight. Some 1,700 of those hours were on the A330 and A340. Of the two co-pilots, one has 3,000 hours of flying experience and the other 6,600 hours. The aircraft has flown 18,870 hours.

The model is "capable of communicating in several different ways over quite long distances even if they are out of radar coverage," said Kieran Daly of the online aviation news service Air Transport Intelligence.

The French Accident Investigation Bureau for civil aviation (BEA) is investigating, the company said in a statement.

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