JAKARTA (Agencies) – Rescuers scoured the Java Sea on Sunday for an AirAsia plane carrying 162 people which went missing in bad weather en route from Indonesia to Singapore, in the third crisis for a Malaysian carrier this year.
Indonesia and Singapore launched a search and rescue operation for Flight QZ 8501 near Belitung island in Java Sea, the area where the jetliner lost contact with ground traffic control about 42 minutes after taking off from Surabaya.
The search halted at 5.30pm but would resume at 7am Monday, or even earlier if the weather was good, Indonesian transport ministry official Hadi Mustofa told AFP.
Air traffic controllers lost contact with the twin-engine aircraft around an hour after it left Juanda International Airport at Surabaya in East Java at 5.20am.
Shortly before disappearing, AirAsia said the plane had asked permission from Jakarta air traffic control to deviate from its flight plan and climb above bad weather in an area noted for severe thunderstorms.
The airline, giving a revised breakdown of nationalities, said 155 of those on board Flight QZ8501 were Indonesians, with three South Koreans and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia, Britain and France.
The Frenchman was the co-pilot.
Sixteen of those on board were children and one was an infant.
Brunei’s Department of Civil Aviation under the Ministry of Communications said according to information received no Bruneians were on board the flight.
The department urged members of the public not to speculate and spread unconfirmed information obtained from social media.
The last communication between the pilot and air traffic control was at 6.13am, when the pilot “asked to avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 34,000 feet”. It was last seen on radar at 6.16am, and a minute later was no longer there, Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s Acting Director General of Transportation, told reporters.
More than 12 hours later, shocked family members huddled at the Surabaya airport from where the Airbus A320 had taken off, awaiting any news of the jetliner.
AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes flew to Surabaya and said at a press conference that that the focus should be on the search and the families.
“We have no idea at the moment what went wrong,” said Fernandes. “Let’s not speculate at the moment.”
It is the third major aviation incident involving Malaysia this year. In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared with 239 people, and in July, a jet from the same airline was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.
Murjatmodjo said there was no distress signal from the cockpit of the twin-engine, single-aisle plane.
“We hope we can find the location of the plane as soon as possible, and we hope that God will give us guidance to find it,” he said.
AirAsia said in a statement that the plane was on the submitted flight plan route. However, it had requested a change due to weather before communication with the aircraft was lost while it was still under the control of Indonesian air traffic control.
“This is my worst nightmare,” Fernandes tweeted.
Rescue agency chief FHB Soelistyo said three ships and three planes from Malaysia would join the search Monday. Singapore had offered a C130 plane and Australia also offered help.
The aircraft was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia which dominates Southeast Asia’s booming low-cost airline market.
With hard details few and far between, panicked relatives gathered at Singapore’s Changi airport.
In Surabaya hundreds of Indonesians descended on the terminal, hoping for news.
A 45-year-old woman told AFP that she had six family members on the plane.
“They were going to Singapore for a holiday,” she said.
“They have always flown with AirAsia and there was no problem. I am very worried that the plane might have crashed.”
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo said his nation was “praying for the safety” of those onboard.
His country, a vast archipelago with poor land transport infrastructure, has seen an explosive growth in low-cost air travel over recent years.
But the air industry has been blighted by poor safety standards in an area that also experiences extreme weather.
AirAsia said the missing jet last underwent maintenance on November 16. The company has never suffered a fatal accident.
“The plane is in good condition but the weather is not so good,” Murjatmodjo said.
Climbing to dodge large rain clouds is a standard procedure for aircraft in these conditions.
“What happens after that is a question mark,” according to Indonesian-based aviation analyst Dudi Sudibyo.