At least 45 killed as plane skids off runway in Madrid

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PARIS: At least 45 people died Wednesday and 44 others were injured when an airliner en route to the Canary Islands of Spain swerved off the end of a runway at Madrid's airport, Spanish officials said.

"There were 178 passengers on board, including the crew," said Valentin Narro, a government official at the Interior Ministry's office for Madrid. "There are 45 dead and 44 injured."

A Red Cross official at the airport said the aircraft, Spanair Flight JK5022, swerved off the runway during takeoff. Spanair said the accident happened at 2:45 p.m.

Narro could not confirm whether the aircraft had caught fire. Television footage of the accident showed clouds of white smoke billowing over the runway at Madrid Barajas International Airport.

Olivia Acosta, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross at Barajas airport, said 22 ambulances were at the scene and that a makeshift hospital had been set up.

"There are teams of psychosocial workers to help the victims," she said.

Spanair is a troubled low-cost carrier owned by SAS, Scandinavian Airlines System. SAS confirmed that an accident had taken place at the Madrid airport involving Spanair Flight JK5022 from Madrid to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. The plane model was a Boeing MD-82, a type of MD-80.

The MD-80 is a long, narrow plane with engines mounted to the rear of the fuselage and the tail high in the air.

In April, the Federal Aviation Administration inspected American Airline MD-80s and found a maintenance problem: wiring bundles that had been improperly wrapped and attached inside wheel wells. The airline canceled 3,300 flights.

The wiring is required to be stowed in a way to avoid chafing by moving parts in the wheel well, which otherwise could result in an electric short.

Spanair, founded in 1986, has hubs in Madrid and Barcelona and flies within Spain and the rest of Europe, as well as West Africa.

The airline, which carried 11.2 million passengers last year, is part of the Star Alliance, which also includes United Airlines, Air Canada, SAS and Lufthansa of Germany.

SAS tried to sell the money-losing airline last year, only to drop the effort in June after it could not find a buyer. Spain's largest airline, Iberia, pulled out of discussions, and later initiated separate merger talks with British Airways.

On Wednesday, before word of the crash, Spanair pilots had threatened to go on strike, saying management did not have a plan to fix the carrier's problems.

Spanair lost $81 million in the first half of the year, and SAS has said that it plans to cut a quarter of Spanair's flights and eliminate about 1,000 jobs, or about a third of its employees.

A majority of Spanair's fleet is from the MD-80 family, although it also includes Boeing and Airbus jets.

SAS said that it was doing "everything possible to help passengers and next of kin and to assist Spanish authorities at this difficult time."

Spanair said that the flight was a code-share flight with Lufthansa LH 2554, and that it had set up an emergency number for relatives of passengers.

The plane had been headed to Gran Canaria in Spain's Canary Islands, which are a popular vacation destination off the West African coast.