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EgyptAir Flight 804 Was Being Tracked As It Descended And Fell Off Radar


French President Francois Hollande says the missing Egypt airplane has likely crashed over water. Greek officials say their air traffic controllers were tracking the plane as it fell 22,000 feet and then disappeared from their radar. With us now is aviation analyst Alex Macheras. He's on Skype from London. We're also joined by NPR's Emily Harris, who is in Cairo. Good morning to both of you.

ALEX MACHERAS: Good morning.


KELLY: Emily, let me start with you. You just landed in Cairo. What was the scene inside the airport?

HARRIS: From all I could tell, things were operating normally. It wasn't a very busy morning in the baggage claim or through passport control, but there wasn't a great police presence. There wasn't any area cordoned off. Our flight arriving from Tel Aviv was late because it was late coming out of Cairo, but there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary just as a passenger coming through the airport.

Not far away from there, the Ministry of Civil Aviation was, shortly after I landed, briefing the press, the reporters about what happened, what they know - or really, what they mostly still don't know about this plane.

KELLY: Right. What were the headlines there?

HARRIS: Very packed scene, a lot of Egyptian reporters really demanding - wanting to know what was going on. But really little information from the minister, who was briefing the main message that he kept saying was we're going to call this a missing plane until we know for sure what happened. They did give some information about where it was last - the communication was last had when it was just leaving Greek airspace. They have sent some rescue efforts, and he said that there were 66 people total on board, including seven crew and three security staff of EgyptAir.

KELLY: Right. We know that it had just crossed into Egyptian airspace when it disappeared. Alex, let me bring you in. You've been tracking all of these developments today from London. One note since we last spoke to you - we have reports that debris has been found near where the last transponder signal was omitted. Of course, there's a lot of debris out there in the ocean at any given time. Should we read anything into this?

MACHERAS: Good morning. Yes, that's correct. So in the last few minutes, we have had that confirmation from the Greek transport ministry, who's said that actually, they're not calling it debris as such, but they are calling it objects floating in the sea about 50 miles or so away from the last known position of the sea that this aircraft was flying over.

And just to recap, this EgyptAir A320 was last seen on radar at 37,000 feet just north of Alexandria, over the Mediterranean, just to the west of Cyprus. Now this isn't a particularly large area. And so for those speculating that oh God, have we got another MH370 on our hands where, two years later, we're still unable to find anything, this should not be the case. And I would expect that the Egyptian search teams find the crash site, as they're expecting it to be, today.

In fact, my gut feeling says that they have already found it. I've spoken to a colleague in Cairo, Richard, who said to me that actually, the media there aren't convinced that the Egyptian authorities are letting on everything that they do know.

KELLY: All right, so lots still to follow there. Walk us through what we do know about the final moments of this flight. We said that they were in contact with Greek authorities.

MACHERAS: They were. So - excuse me - this was the handover from Greek airspace to Egyptian airspace, which is routine when flying across international borders. So this involved was the flight crew speaking to Greek air traffic controllers, basically telling them that OK, they're leaving Greek airspace now, and then entering Egyptian airspace and speaking to the Egypt center air traffic control.

Now we know that that did happen. Once the aircraft - EgyptAir plane crossed into Egyptian airspace, they flew for 10 miles. And during those 10 miles, they had spoken to air traffic control in Egypt to let them know of their whereabouts. It was then around 10 miles later that the aircraft disappeared from radar.

We've had the transport minister tell us in a press conference in Cairo today that the aircraft is believed to have descended 22,000 feet violently whilst making 360-degree turns. But the Greeks have just contradicted this, so I think until we see the crash site, we - it's not really a clear image as of yet.

KELLY: OK. And just to be clear, last-minute swerving - that could be down to any number of things. It could be down to the pilot being incapacitated. It could be down to weather. It could be down to mechanical failure. It could be down to terrorism. We just don't know. Emily Harris back in Cairo, tell us what you can about the search efforts. We mentioned maybe some debris in the Mediterranean. I assume that boats are out there combing the waters.

HARRIS: Egypt has sent planes and boats, and France was due to also send some support for rescue efforts. And just to echo this sense of skepticism, I would say among the Egyptian press core there definitely seems to be a sense of perhaps the Egyptian air authorities and the civil aviation minister have more information than they're sharing at the moment.

That may come from the last - the way the Egyptian officials reacted to the last flight that disappeared after taking off from Egypt back on October 31 last fall, which did turn out to be terrorism. It was a Russian airliner that blew up over the Sinai. And for a long time, the Egyptian officials didn't acknowledge it was terrorism. And so that's left a deep sense of skepticism here.

KELLY: I'm sure that there is resistance to wanting to think that it is terrorism. And also, you know, Egypt, a country very much reliant on tourist dollars, wanting to hope that that is the very last possible scenario.

HARRIS: Yes, that's right. Egypt has been suffering a lot with tourism, and that's not good advertising for anyone. As far as the search efforts go, the Egyptian officials say they are - have gathered families in a hotel here near the airport. My colleague here, my Egyptian colleague, spoke to one woman very briefly this morning who was coming out of an EgyptAir office with no information, talking about her daughter and wiping away some tears, and her son asked us not to speak with her at that time. But families are waiting for information along with everyone else.

KELLY: OK. Alex, just one more quick question to you. We just have about 20 seconds left. But just quickly, the actual plane in question - we said there were 66 people on board. Is this a big plane?

MACHERAS: Well, this is an Airbus A320, so it's a very typical short-haul commercial airliner, the workhorse of the skies. One takes off or lands every two-and-a-half seconds. The fact that there were 60 on board is a particularly light load. It could be as many as just under 200 on this aircraft.

KELLY: OK, thank you very much. Thanks to you both. That's Alex Macheras, aviation analyst, in London. We've also been hearing from NPR's Emily Harris, who just landed in Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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