Jet carrying 116 people vanishes over west Africa

Alastair Jamieson and Jason Cumming

A commercial jetliner carrying 116 people disappeared over west Africa after losing contact with air traffic controllers early Thursday, a Spanish charter company said.

Air Algerie Flight AH5017 vanished about 50 minutes after it left Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, according to the Algerian Press Service. The jet took off at 1:17 a.m. local time (9:17 p.m. ET on Wednesday) bound for Algiers, Algeria.

In a statement, Madrid-based Swiftair confirmed it had chartered the missing McDonnell Douglas MD-83. Swiftair said 110 passengers and six crew were aboard the jet. It had been due to land in the Algerian capital at 5:10 a.m. local time (12:10 a.m. ET). The flight was missing for hours before the news was made public.

An Air Algerie jet is shown at Berlin's Schoenefeld Airport.

Ougadougou is in a nearly straight line south of Algiers.

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An Algerian official told Reuters that the last contact with the jet was over Gao, Mali. An influx of arms and fighters from the 2011 Libyan civil and an attempted coup the following year has left Mali in Turmoil. Gao has witnessed recent attacks involving both Tuareg separatist rebels and al Qaeda-linked militants.

Issa Saly Maiga, the head of Mali's National Civil Aviation Agency, told Reuters that a search was under way for the missing flight. "We do not know if the plane is Malian territory," he added. "Aviation authorities are mobilised in all the countries concerned - Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Algeria and even Spain."

The incident comes in the wake of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 being shot down by a surface-to-air missle over eastern Ukraine last Thursday.

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On Wednesday, U.K. pilots also warned passengers of the "illusion of safety" after some airlines halted flights to an Israeli airport because of the risk of rockets fired by militants.

Officials investigate fate of missing Air Algerie jet

The Federal Aviation Administration classes Mali as a potentially hostile region.

"Civil aircraft operating into, out of, within or over Mali are at risk of encountering insurgent small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, rocket and mortar fire, and anti-aircraft fire, to include shoulder-fired man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS)," the FAA said in a notice. Any U.S. aircraft flying below 24,000 feet "must obtain current threat information" and comply with all FAA regulations.

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Flight plans are drawn up by airlines and pilots and submitted to air traffic controllers for approval. Ultimately, pilots fly the agreed routing – unless they receive or request adjustments from air traffic controllers while en route.

David Gleave, an aviation expert at Britain's Loughborough University, described the MD-83 as a "pretty solid airplane in general." He added: "It flies fairly simply, pilots understand how it flies so it is a solid, reliable workhorse … it is unlikely to be the flight crew didn't understand the aircraft."

Gleave said that a variety of problems might be behind the plane's disappearance potentially ranging from maintenance issues to human error. "It could be something as mundane as multiple vulture strikes," he added.

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Crashes involving Malaysia Airlines alone have sent this year's death toll in aviation disasters beyond the annual global average, according to figures from the International Air Transport Association. The downing of MH17 and March 8 disappearance of MH370 account for 537 deaths – higher than the five-year worldwide average total of 517.

A TransAsia flight also crash-landed on a Taiwanese island Wednesday, killing 48 people.

—By Alastair Jamieson and Jason Cumming, NBC News