French authorities have ruled out finding any survivors on board an Air New Zealand-owned jet that crashed into the Mediterranean, the airline said today.
Air NZ also said the matter had been passed on to the local judiciary, indicating that it was now the subject of a police investigation.
Group general manager international Ed Sims said New Zealand police officers would be involved in the inquiry.
The Airbus A320, being flown by two German pilots and carrying five New Zealanders, plunged into the sea off the southern French coast as it approached Perpignan airport yesterday morning (NZT).
Two bodies, neither of which had been positively identified, were found shortly after the crash, but the five others were still missing.
The plane was on a test flight as part of maintenance being done before being returned to Air NZ after a two-year lease to German company XL Airways, for whom the two pilots were working.
Mr Sims said rescue authorities reported that the aircraft appeared to have broken up on impact and there was no realistic chance of survivors.
He said the news was devastating for the families concerned and for all 11,000 Air NZ staff worldwide.
"Sadly, rescue authorities have told us that all evidence on site indicates that, given the nature of the impact, there is no chance of survivors," he said
"Debris is spread over a large area and it appears the aircraft is not in large pieces as originally indicated by those who saw the impact."
Four of the five New Zealanders on board were Air NZ staff.
They were Captain Brian Horrell, 52, from Auckland; engineers Murray White, 37, from Auckland, Michael Gyles, 49, from Christchurch, and Noel Marsh, 35, from Christchurch.
The fifth New Zealander was Civil Aviation Authority airworthiness inspector Jeremy Cook, 58, of Wellington.
Mr Sims said Air NZ support teams were with the families of the four staff members who had been on the aircraft.
He said relatives of one of the men were travelling with chief executive Rob Fyfe to Perpignan.
Relatives of another of the men, as well members of Mr Cook's family, were also expected to take up Air NZ's offer to fly there.
Mr Sims said Air NZ wanted to thank the French search and rescue authorities for their extraordinary efforts in difficult conditions.
He said more than 150 searchers had been involved, with 75 remaining on active duty through the night.
"The activities of the search and rescue teams have been phenomenal," he said.
"They have put every resource imaginable to the rescue effort."
Mr Sims said Air NZ extended its sympathies to Mr Cook's family and to the families of the two XL Airways pilots.
He said about a dozen Air NZ personnel had arrived in Perpignan, with 12 others, included Mr Fyfe, due there in the next 24 hours.
Earlier today, French authorities said locator signals had been received from two black box flight recorders on board the plane.
The two recording devices have been located, deputy public prosecutor Dominique Alzeari told French media this morning.
He did not give further details but a minehunter vessel and divers are at the scene.
There are two so-called 'black boxes' on board A320s, one which gathers flight data and another that records audio from the cockpit.
But bad weather in the form of high winds, swells of more two metres and cool temperatures meant the recorders were unlikely to be recovered until tomorrow.
The flight had involved a series of routine manoeuvres.
Capt Horrell, with 22 years' services with the Air NZ and one of the company's most experienced A320 captains, was sitting behind the two German pilots, observing that the plane was operating normally.
Mr White, Mr Gyles, Mr Marsh and Mr Cook were seated further back.
During its time with the German airline, the plane made 2800 flights totalling about 7000 hours of use.
It passed all its ground and maintenance inspections before taking off.
The plane disappeared off radar screens at 4.54am NZST yesterday (4.54pm Thursday local time) when it was about 8km out from Perpignan airport.
A gendarme who raised the alarm after he saw the plane go down said he watched as it suddenly went into a dive while flying at a height of around 300 metres.
"It tried to straighten up but then it fell right into the sea, sending a huge spray of water into the air," he said.
The wreck was lying on a sandy bank at a depth of 35m, according to officials.
French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau flew over the site where the plane went down about 7km off the coast.
He later went to pay his respects to the two dead men in the hospital in Perpignan where their bodies were taken, and was due to be briefed by investigators probing the cause of the crash.
Mr Bussereau said the plane went to France for tests and to be repainted in Air NZ's colours before heading to Frankfurt, from where it had been scheduled to leave for New Zealand today.
An emergency services spokesman said the jet had been undergoing servicing at EAS Industries in Perpignan and had been flying circuits for 90 minutes before it crashed.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said described the incident as a great tragedy.
"We'll work with Air New Zealand and the families to help in any way that is appropriate."