By Drew Hinshaw and Stacy Meichtry
Investigators are looking into whether Air Algérie flight 5017 was downed by storms along the southern rim of
the Sahara, killing all those aboard and renewing questions about safety in a region where rapid growth in air traffic
outpaces improvements in infrastructure and the management of airspace.
French troops were combing a three-hundred-meter radius of sand, soot and twisted metal debris near the town of
Gossi in Northern Mali. The painstaking search, which began late on Thursday after the plane went missing for nearly a
day, uncovered one of the jetliners' two black boxes but no signs of life.
"There are, alas, no survivors," French President François Hollande somberly told reporters on the steps of
the Élysée Palace in Paris. The French government put the death toll at 118 people.
Officials in France, which lost 54 nationals on the flight, cautioned it was too early to ascertain the cause of
the crash. But French officials ruled out the possibility the plane was shot down, which is a source of concern in a
region rife with jihadist insurgents.
The fact that crash debris is concentrated in a relatively small area, officials said, suggested the plane had
disintegrated on impact rather than breaking up in the air as the result of a midair explosion.
Instead, investigators were exploring the possibility the Boeing MD-83 ran into sand and lightning storms that
severed ground-control communication with the plane and caused the crew to lose their grip on the aircraft. "What I can
tell you with certainty is that some significant storms were active in the area," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius
said. "The crew specifically signaled its intention to change course due to weather before contact was lost."
Africa remains one of the world's most accident-prone regions for air travel, despite recent improvements in the
continent's safety record. Africa's airports and air-traffic control are straining to keep up with a burgeoning air-
travel industry fueled by economic growth across the region.
Passenger volumes grew 5.5 % last year and 7.5% the year before, according to International Air Transport
Association estimates. And airlines are racing to buy enough planes to keep pace with demand.
In Ghana, the number of local airlines has tripled from two to six in the space of three years. In Nigeria,
airports that just a generation ago didn't receive U.S. carriers now welcome daily flights from the likes of Delta Air
Lines, Inc.War-torn Ivory Coast boasts Air Côte d'Ivoire, an Air France-KLM Group unit. Even tiny Gambia has its
own regional-carrier, Gambia Bird.
The surge in African air travel has come despite the difficulties of flying there. Information on weather along
flight paths often is unreliable. Pilots on the continent complain of patchy radar coverage. The protocol for switching
from one control tower to another relies on outdated practices, some analysts say. And some air-traffic controllers
appear inattentive and are difficult to understand or go silent over the radio, pilots say.
Meanwhile, many airports lack runway lights or functioning electric generators to kick in when blackouts strike.
Only 11 of the continent's 54 countries have met 60% of the steps demanded by an International Civil Aviation
Organization audit, which include measures like training ground crew and renovating hangar facilities.
"Safety in Africa is still not where it should be," said Nick Fadugba, chief executive of London-based African
Aviation consultancy. "It is getting better slowly, but there's a lot left to be done."
The airplane that crashed on Thursday was operated by Swiftair SA, a Spanish charter company, with a Spanish crew.
Swiftair said it was "too early to talk about the causes of the accident and we are not in a position to give additional
Burkina Faso, where the flight departed, has one of Africa's better safety records, said Elijah Chingosho,
secretary-general of the African Airlines Association, an umbrella group of carriers on the continent. "The authorities
there are quite good," he said
But Mali has a weak central government and in effect is a divided nation, with its northern regions under the
control of Tuareg minorities. On Friday, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita asked France to lead the inquiry into
the crash, Mr. Fabius said, with the help of Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Spain.
The location of one black-box recorder was a sign the inquiry into the crash was making progress after a rocky
start. The jetliner went missing for nearly a day after ground controllers lost contact with it over northern Mali.
French jet fighters combed the area's arid landscape for more than six hours without finding a trace of the crash,
according to the French military.
A breakthrough occurred late on Thursday when officials in Burkina Faso got a phone call from a villager who had
spotted the plane's wreckage near the town of Gossi, not far from the northern city of Gao.
France dispatched a Reaper drone aircraft to verify the wreckage before dispatching a hundred troops in helicopters
and trucks to the area in the early hours of Friday, army spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said on Friday. They were joined
by 60 Malian troops and 40 Dutch soldiers, Mr. Fabius said.
French officials noted the crash site is about a six-hour drive from Gao. Sandy terrain and stormy weather were
rendering the recovery efforts very difficult, Mr. Fabius said.
Write to Stacy Meichtry at email@example.com and Inti Landauro at firstname.lastname@example.org
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