JAKARTA - AirAsia confirmed in a Facebook statement on Tuesday (Dec 30) evening that the debris found by search teams was that of the missing flight QZ8501,
Singapore Navy ships are heading to the area where bodies and debris was found, in the Karimata Strait off the coast of Borneo.
Earlier, search teams spotted a shadow on the seabed believed to be the missing AirAsia flight, said Indonesia's search and rescue agency chief who was "95 per cent sure" debris found belonged to the plane.
“At 12:50 (local time), the air force Hercules found an object described as a shadow at the bottom of the sea in the form of a plane,” Bambang Soelistyo, chief of Barsarnas, told a press conference in Jakarta.
"At 13:25, we spotted a floating object believed to be one of the passengers’ bodies,” he said.
Relatives of the 162 people on the plane burst into tears in Surabaya, where the plane departed from on Sunday, as they watched television footage showing a body floating in the sea during a live telecast of Soelistyo’s press conference.
Soelistyo said the search was being concentrated around 160 km southwest of the town of Pangkalan Bun in Central Kalimantan on Borneo island.
"Indonesian air force Bung Tomo vessel found an item floating on surface that we think is a plane's emergency exit door...A Basarnas helicopter flew there to make sure it is a plane's exit door and the chopper helped Bung Tomo vessel evacuate the item,'' he said.
"With all these findings, I am - as a search and rescue coordinator - 95 per cent convinced the location is the debris that came from the plane."
“All elements in the areas and search and rescue personnel will be moved to the location,” he said. “Their job is to find and evacuate all objects or passengers’ bodies.”
He told reporters that divers have been deployed to the area which has a depth of 25 to 30 metres. He said submersible vehicles would be used if there is a need to dive deeper into the sea.
The latest developments came as Indonesian authorities expanded the search operation for the plane.
Search area expanded to include land search
Mr F. H. Bambang Soelistyo, the chief of search and rescue agency Basarnas, told reporters on Tuesday morning that the search zone had been expanded from seven to 13 sectors covering a total of 156,000 sq km and the operations expanded beyond sea and air search to land search. The teams will scour islands in the area as well as land on Indonesia’s side of Borneo.
The United States has despatched the USS Sampson to join vessels from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in the search for the Airbus A320-200 that has been missing since Sunday morning with 162 people on board.
South Korea said it was sending a P-3 reconnaissance plane that was involved in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 which vanished in March. China has despatched a navy frigate and aircraft, the official Xinhua news agency said.
"We want the search operation to complete and succeed fast," Mr Soelistyo told reporters in Jakarta.
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.
Mr Soelistyo believed the plane is likely at the bottom of the 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,” he told reporters on Monday.
Mr Soelistyo said Indonesia did not have the tools, such as submersible vehicles, required to retrieve the plane from the seabed and will seek help from other countries such as US, France and the United Kingdom.
Last recording shows pilot's request to fly higher was rejected
Reports said a recording of the last communication between the pilot and the air traffic control showed the pilot wanted to avoid a storm before all communication was lost.
The pilot had asked for permission to fly at a higher level of 38,000 feet instead of 32,000 feet to avoid a storm but his request was not approved due to heavy traffic on the popular route. He then asked to alter his course and repeated his request to ascend to avoid bad weather.
His request to deviate from the usual M635 route to the left side was immediately approved but not his request to fly at a higher altitude, said reports.
Minutes later when the air traffic controller wanted to give clearance to fly higher, there was no response from the plane.
Indonesia to review Indonesia AirAsia operations
Indonesia AirAsia is 49 per cent owned by Malaysia-based budget carrier AirAsia. The AirAsia group, including affiliates in Thailand, the Philippines and India, had not suffered a crash since its Malaysian budget operations began in 2002.
The plane’s disappearance comes at a sensitive time for Jakarta’s aviation authorities, as they strive to improve the country’s safety reputation to match its status as one of the airline industry’s fastest growing markets.
Indonesia has said it 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 said the missing jet last underwent maintenance on Nov 16. 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.
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.