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Seven people, including five New Zealanders, were in the Airbus A320 as it plunged into the Mediterranean Sea about 5am (NZ time) today.
It was making its final approach to Perpignan Airport after an assessment flight and was due to be returned to New Zealand after having been leased to a German airline.
Air New Zealand group general manager international Ed Sims said from Auckland tonight that five boats were on the water at daylight local time and as many as 60 divers entered the water.
Over 150 people were involved in the wider search and rescue group and a minesweeper had been deployed to search the ocean floor for the aircraft's black box.
He said weather conditions were challenging, with winds gusting between 20 and 30 knots, alon g with swells.
Mr Sims said company chief executive Rob Fyfe and deputy Norm Thompson were on their way to France.
Air investigators from New Zealand have also headed to the scene.
Mr Fyfe was assisting family members of those missing who wanted to head to France.
"We will continue to offer the opportunity to all of the families involved to fly them up as soon as they feel - and if they feel - that that is what they want to do," Mr Sims said.
He said it had been a long, difficult and emotional day for all concerned.
"While we are being updated locally from Perpignan, the activity of many hundreds of Air New Zealanders continues to focus on the support for the families of all of those involved."
Staff aboard the Airbus included Noel Marsh, a 35-year-old engineer based in Christchurch, Captain Brian Horrell, 52, from Auckland, Murray White, 37, from Auckland and Michael Gyles, 49, from Christchurch.
Civil Aviation Authority airworthiness inspector Jeremy Cook, of Wellington, was also on board, along with two German pilots.
The family of Mr Marsh said tonight they were deeply saddened about the events of today, but held onto a small hope that he would be found alive.
"Noel relished the opportunity to travel to Europe to be involved in the acceptance process for the A320. He loves his job and as a family we are extremely proud of him," the family said.