A China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 carrying 132 people crashed in the mountains of southern China on Monday.
The flight from Kunming city to the southern hub of Guangzhou “lost airborne contact over Wuzhou” in the Guangxi region, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) said on Monday.
President Xi Jinping has ordered an immediate investigation into the crash. China Eastern said there were casualties without providing the exact number of people killed or whether there were any survivors.
“The company expresses its deep condolences for the passengers and crew members who died in the plane crash,” the airline said in a statement.
The cause of the crash is “still under investigation”, it said.
President Xi called for “all efforts” towards the rescue and to find out the “cause of the accident as soon as possible”, Chinese state media reported.
Hundreds of firefighters were sent to the scene in Teng county near the city of Wuzhou, state media reported, as nearby villagers rushed to help the rescue effort.
“Everyone went to the mountains,” Tang Min, who runs a small restaurant a few kilometres from the crash site, told AFP.
The plane was six years old and Flight MU5735 took off from Kunming at 1.11pm (5.11am GMT) heading to Guangzhou, said Flightradar24.
Radar tracking showed the aircraft taking a steep descent at 2.22pm local time (6.22am GMT).
The aircraft was carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members.
A rescue official was cited as saying the plane had completely disintegrated.
A fire sparked by the crash destroyed bamboo and trees before being put out.
One villager told a local news site that the plane had “completely fallen apart” and he had seen forest areas destroyed by the fire it caused when crashing into the mountainside.
China Eastern opened an emergency assistance phone number on Monday afternoon.
A January company report said China Eastern had 289 Boeing 737-series aircraft in its 751-strong fleet.
State broadcaster CCTV said it had learnt that China Eastern will ground all its 787-800 jets as a precaution after the crash.
Boeing said in a statement that it was “aware of the initial media reports and are working to gather more information".
The plane had been cruising at an altitude of 29,100 feet (8,869 metres) at 6.20am GMT, data compiled by FlightRadar24 showed.
About two minutes and 15 seconds later, the next available data showed it had descended to 9,075 feet (2,766m). In another 20 seconds, its last tracked altitude was 3,225 feet (982m).
The website of China Eastern Airlines was later displayed in black and white, which airlines do in response to a crash as a sign of respect for the assumed victims.
Boeing China's website also switched to the black and white theme.
Aviation data provider OAG said this month that state-owned China Eastern Airlines was the world's sixth-largest carrier by scheduled weekly seat capacity and the biggest in China.
China has had a relatively strong domestic aviation market during the coronavirus pandemic despite tight curbs on international flights.
China's record on air safety is world-class, according to the Aviation Safety Network, a service that tracks air crashes and aviation incidents.
The country's last fatal jet accident was in 2010, when 44 of 96 people on board were killed as an Embraer E-190 regional jet flown by Henan Airlines crashed on approach to Yichun airport in low visibility.
The 737-800 model that crashed on Monday has a good safety record and is the predecessor to the 737 MAX model that has been grounded in China for more than three years after fatal crashes in 2018 in Indonesia and 2019 in Ethiopia.
In 1994, a China Northwest Airlines Tupolev Tu-154 flying from Xian to Guangzhou was destroyed in an accident after take-off, killing all 160 people on board and ranking as China's worst air disaster, according to Aviation Safety Network.