JAKARTA – IN A third air incident connected to Malaysia this year, an AirAsia plane with 162 people on board went missing on Sunday while flying over the Java Sea after taking off from a provincial city in Indonesia for Singapore.
The two countries immediately launched a search and rescue operation for Flight QZ8501 but there was no sign of the plane more than seven hours after it lost contact with ground control.
AirAsia, a regional low-cost carrier founded in 2001 by Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes, said in a statement that the missing Airbus A320-200 was on the submitted flight plan route. However, it had requested deviation due to weather before communication with the aircraft was lost while it was still under the control of the Indonesian Air Traffic Control.
AirAsia, which has a presence in most of Southeast Asia and recently India, has never lost a plane before and has a good safety track record.
“We don’t dare to presume what has happened except that it has lost contact.” Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation, told reporters. He said the last communication between the pilot and air traffic control was at 6.13 a.m. (2313 GMT Saturday) when the pilot “asked to avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 34,000 feet.”
He said there was no distress signal from the cockpit.
The contact was lost about 42 minutes after the single-aisle, twin-engine jetliner took off from Surabaya airport, Hadi Mustofa, an official of the transportation ministry told Indonesia’s MetroTV. It was about an hour before it was scheduled to land in Singapore at 0030 GMT.
The plane had two pilots, five cabin crew and 155 passengers, including 16 children and one infant, AirAsia Indonesia said in a statement. Indonesian officials had earlier said there were 161 people on board.
The AirAsia statement said there were six foreigners on board- three South Koreans and one each from Singapore, Malaysia and France. The rest were Indonesians.
It said the captain in command had a total of 6,100 flying hours, a substantial number, and the first officer a total of 2,275 flying hours.
At Surabaya airport, dozens of relatives sat in a room, many of them talking on mobile phones and crying. Some looked dazed. As word spread, more and more family members were arriving at the crisis center to await word.
Murjatmodjo, the Indonesian official, said the plane is believed to have gone missing somewhere over the Java Sea between Tanjung Pandan on Belitung island and Pontianak, on Indonesia’s part of Kalimantan island.
Minister of Transportation Ignasius Jonan told reporters in Surabaya that the position was believed to be near the coast line. He said search and rescue efforts now involved the Indonesian army, the national Search and Rescue Agency as well as Singapore and Malaysia. But that the effort will focus on the area around Belitung island.
Air Force spokesman Hadi Tjahjanto said three aircraft, including a surveillance plane, had been dispatched to the area.
The Singapore air force and the navy also were searching with two C-130 planes.
Flightradar24, a flight tracking website, said the plane was delivered in September 2008, which would make it six years old. It is not clear if it has any satellite tracking devices on board.
There are currently 3,606 A320s in operation worldwide, according to Airbus.
The Malaysia-based AirAsia, which has dominated cheap travel in the region for years, flies short routes of just a few hours, connecting large cities of Southeast Asia. However, recently it has tried to expand into long-distance flying through its sister airline AirAsia X. AirAsia Malaysia owns 49 percent of its subsidiary, AirAsia Indonesia.
Fernandes, who is the face of AirAsia and an active Twitter user, sent out a tweet saying: “Thank you for all your thoughts and prays. We must stay strong.”
He stirred controversy earlier this year after incorrectly tweeting that Malaysia Airlines flight 370, now synonymous with one of aviation’s enduring mysteries, had landed safely. The wide-bodied Boeing 777, went missing soon after taking off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8. It remains missing until this day with 239 people.
Another Malaysia Airlines flight, also a Boeing 777, was shot down over rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine while on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17. A total of 298 people on board were killed.
William Waldock, an expert on air crash search and rescue with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, cautioned against drawing comparisons to the disappearance of Malaysia flight 370.
“I think we have to let this play out,” he said. “Hopefully, the airplane will get found, and if that happens it will probably be in the next few hours. Until then, we have to reserve judgment.”
The circumstances bode well for finding the plane since the intended flight time was less than two hours and there is a known position at which the plane disappeared, he said.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, expressed solidarity with AirAsia. In a tweet he said. “Very sad to hear that AirAsia Indonesia QZ8501 is missing. My thoughts are with the families. Malaysia stands ready to help.”
President Barack Obama, who was vacationing in Hawaii, was briefed Sunday evening on the plane’s disappearance, and White House officials were tracking the situation, the White House said. – AP/Sapa