AirAsia flight QZ8501: Indonesia says plane is likely at bottom of sea; multi-nation search resumes for second day

Family members of passengers onboard AirAsia flight QZ8501 at a waiting area in Juanda International Airport, Surabaya on Dec 28, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Family members of passengers onboard AirAsia flight QZ8501 at a waiting area in Juanda International Airport, Surabaya on Dec 28, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA -  The AirAsia Indonesia plane which went missing with 162 people on board en route to Singapore is likely at the bottom of the sea, Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency chief said on Monday, as a multi-nation search operation resumed for a second day on two search areas in the Java Sea.

“Based on the coordinates given to us and evaluation that the estimated crash position is in the sea, the hypothesis is the plane is at the bottom of the sea,” AFP quoted Bambang Soelistyo as saying at a press conference. “That’s the preliminary suspicion and it can develop based on the evaluation of the result of our search.”

He said Indonesia did not have “the tools", such as submersible vehicles, required to retrieve the plane from the seabed, but it is reaching out to other countries for help if necessary, according to AFP.

“Due to the lack of technology that we have, I have coordinated with our foreign minister so we will borrow from other countries which have offered. They are the UK, France and US,” he said. 

The multi-nation search and locate operation resumed on Monday at  6.00 am (7am Singapore time) for the plane that went missing in the Java Sea after the pilot requested a change in course to avoid bad weather. No distress signal was sent.

Search areas divided into seven sectors

Mr Bambang told The Straits Times in the central operation room in Jakarta on Sunday that there were two search areas.

The first one lies towards a sea area between Belitung island and south-western part of Kalimantan, and measures 120 nautical miles by 240 nautical miles.

The second search area  is between western part of Kalimantan and Bangka island and is about 180 nautical miles by 150 nautical miles. Bangka island is north-west of Belitung island.

The total search area has been divided into seven sectors - with Indonesian Armed Forces planes focusing their efforts in three areas, and aircraft from Malaysia and Singapore in another two areas each, according to a chart from Basarnas.

Mr Bambang, a 3-star air force officer, said Pangkal Pinang on Bangka island will be the tactical operational base for all search efforts. Pangkal Pinang has better access to supplies of fuel and other logistics needs compared to Tanjung Pandan, he said.

Flight QZ8501 went missing on Sunday morning while travelling from Surabaya to Singapore. The plane had 155 passengers and seven crew members. There were 155 Indonesians, one Singaporean, one Malaysian, one French, one British and three South Koreans.

Multi-nation search operation

Australia on Monday joined the Indonesia-led search.  A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3C Orion took off from the northern city of Darwin early Monday to join the operation, the Australian Defence Force said.

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said Malaysia had deployed six assets - three vessels and three aircraft - for the search operation.

Singapore had deployed three Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) C-130 planes and a navy vessel will sail off on Monday evening to join the search.

The United States, Britain, South Korea and India also offered help ranging from planes and navy ships to experts and investigators.

"We have focused all our strength, from the search and rescue agency, the military, police and help from the community as well as the fishermen," said Mt Bambang.

Mr Djoko Murjatmodjo, air transportation director at the Transport Ministry, said on Sunday that the ministry had also asked the army to carry out ground searches, including in mountainous areas, for traces of the plane.

Distraught relatives await news

Distraught relatives of the missing passengers spent the night in Surabaya hoping for news of their loved ones. Security was tight at the airport crisis centre in Surabaya, with dozens of security officers and soldiers seen standing guard.  

Vicky, whose two siblings were on the plane, said he was upset to hear an airline official said he joined in their “sadness”.

“What he said was not appropriate at all. If they were sad it means there’s death. But the flight has not been found yet,” he said.

The aircraft was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia which dominates Southeast Asia’s booming low-cost airline market.

AirAsia’s boss Tony Fernandes, a former record industry executive who acquired the then-failing airline in 2001, headed to Surabaya where most of the passengers are from.

“Obviously this is a massive shock to us and we are devastated by what has happened. It’s unbelievable,” he told a press conference. “We don’t want to speculate. We don’t know what’s happened yet so we’ll wait for the accident investigation. Our concern right now is for the relatives and the next of kin.”

He was at the airport trying to comfort the families, but the airline could offer little besides food, a hotel for the night and assurances that all was being done to find the lost plane.

“We’ve been given accommodation from AirAsia but I couldn’t rest with this on my mind,” said one man who gave his name as Haryanto and who has four relatives on board. He said he had been waiting at the airport for 10 hours.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo said his nation was “praying for the safety” of those onboard.

Indonesia to review Indonesia AirAsia operations

Meantime, Indonesia will review the operations of Indonesia AirAsia.

“We will review AirAsia Indonesia to make sure its performance can be better in the future,” Transportation Minister Ignasius Jonan told reporters on Monday.

“Much will be reviewed in terms of its business operations and in terms of air transportation business, so that there are safety improvements.”

The airline, which has never suffered a fatal accident, said the missing jet last underwent maintenance on Nov 16.

Indonesia AirAsia chief executive Sunu Widyatmoko said: "We are deeply shocked and saddened by this incident."

"We are cooperating with the relevant authorities to the fullest extent to determine the cause of this incident."

The airline said on Sunday that the captain and first officer were both experienced. The captain in command had a total of 6,100 flying hours and the first officer a total of 2,275 flying hours, said the airline. 

Airbus said the plane was a six-year-old A320-200 that had carried out some 13,600 flights or a total of about 23,000 flight hours.

The Airbus A320-200 is a twin-engine, single-aisle aircraft that can seat up to 180 passengers in a single-class configuration. the manufacturer said in a statement.

Plane lost contact after deviation due to bad weather

Flight QZ8501 left Juanda international airport in Surabaya in east Java at 5.35am (Indonesia time) and was expected to arrive in Singapore at 8.30am (Singapore time). Local officials said the plane lost contact at about 6.17am (Indonesia time). Indonesia is one hour behind Singapore.

"The aircraft was on the submitted flight plan route and was requesting deviation due to en route weather before communication with the aircraft was lost while it was still under the control of the Indonesian air traffic control," AirAsia said in a statement. No distress signal had been sent, officials said.

The aircraft was between the Indonesian port of Tanjung Pandan and the town of Pontianak in West Kalimantan on Borneo island when it went missing, Mr Murjatmodjo told a news conference on Sunday. The aircraft had been flying at 32,000 feet and had asked to fly at 38,000 feet to avoid clouds, he said.

Indonesian-based aviation analyst Dudi Sudibyo said climbing to dodge large rain clouds is a standard procedure for aircraft in these conditions. “There is nothing wrong to do that. What happens after that is a question mark,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Tanjung Pandan is the main town on Belitung island, roughly half-way between Surabaya and Singapore.

(WITH INPUTS FROM AFP, REUTERS, XINHUA)