An astonishingly tragic year for air travel in Southeast Asia turned worse Sunday when an AirAsia plane carrying 162 people disappeared over stormy Indonesian waters, with no word on its fate despite several hours of searching by air and sea.
AirAsia Flight 8501 vanished in airspace possibly thick with dense storm clouds, strong winds and lightning on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore. Searchers had to fight against heavy rain. The Malaysia-based carrier's loss comes on top of the still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July over Ukraine.
At the Surabaya airport, shocked family members pored over the plane's manifest, crying and embracing when they learned the news. Nias Adityas, a housewife from Surabaya, was overcome with grief when she found the name of her husband, Nanang Priowidodo, on the list.
The 43-year-old tour agent had been taking a family of four on a trip to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia's Lombok island, and had been happy to get the work.
“He just told me, 'Praise God, this new year brings a lot of good fortune,'” Adityas recalled, holding her grandson tight while weeping uncontrollably. “He apologized because he could not join us for the new year celebration.”
Nearly all the passengers and crew are Indonesians, who are frequent visitors to Singapore, particularly on holidays.
The Airbus A320 took off Sunday morning from Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, and was about halfway to Singapore when it vanished from radar. Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia's acting director general of transportation, said there was no distress signal from the cockpit of the twin-engine, single-aisle plane.
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 (10,360 meters),” Murjatmodjo said. It was last seen on radar at 6:16 a.m., and a minute later was no longer there, he told reporters.
Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia launched a search and rescue operation for Flight 8501 near Belitung island in the Java Sea, the area where the jetliner lost contact with ground traffic control about 42 minutes after taking off from Surabaya.
“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,” Murjatmodjo said.
The air search was suspended Sunday evening and was to resume Monday morning, said Achmad Toha of Indonesia's search and rescue agency. Some ships were continuing to comb the area overnight, he said.
AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes flew to Surabaya and said at a news conference that the focus should be on the search and the families rather than the cause of the incident.
“We have no idea at the moment what went wrong,” said Fernandes, a Malaysian businessman who founded the regional low-cost carrier in 2001. “Let's not speculate at the moment.”
Malaysia-based AirAsia has a good safety record and had never lost a plane before. “This is my worst nightmare,” Fernandes tweeted.
But Malaysia itself had already had a catastrophic year, with 239 people still missing from Flight 370 and all 298 people aboard Flight 17 killed when it was shot down over rebel-held territory in Ukraine.
Flight 8501 was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a subsidiary that is 49 percent owned by AirAsia Malaysia.
AirAsia said in a statement that Flight 8501 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.
Sunardi, a weather forecaster at the Indonesia's Meteorology and Geophysics Agency, said dense storm clouds were detected up to 13,400 meters (44,000 feet) in the same area at the time the plane was reported to have lost contact.
“There could have been turbulence, lightning and vertical as well as horizontal strong winds within such clouds,” said Sunardi, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.
The plane had an Indonesian captain and a French co-pilot, five cabin crew members and 155 passengers, including 16 children and one infant, AirAsia Indonesia said in a statement. Among the passengers were three South Koreans, a Malaysian, a British national and his 2-year-old Singaporean daughter. The rest were Indonesians.
AirAsia said the captain has a total of 6,100 flying hours, but Fernandes later said the number is more than 20,000. The airline said the first officer has 2,275 flying hours.
At Surabaya airport, dozens of relatives sat in a room waiting for news, 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.
Dimas, who goes by one name, said his wife, Ratri Sri Andriani, 30, had been on the flight to lead a group of 25 Indonesian tourists on a trip to Singapore and Malaysia. He was holding out hope that the plane had made an emergency landing.
“We can just pray and hope that all those aboard are safe,” said Dimas, who was surrounded by Ratri's parents and friends at the airport crisis center. “We are worried, of course, but we have to surrender to her fate.”
Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan told reporters in Surabaya that Indonesia's army and the national search and rescue agency were involved in the search, as were Singapore and Malaysia.
Other Indonesian officials said 200 rescuers had been deployed to the east side of Belitung island and that three aircraft, including a surveillance plane, were dispatched to the area.
Search and rescue head Bambang Soelistyo said his agency would search Monday with 12 ships and three helicopters, along with three aircraft from the air force, two aircraft from the navy and a number of warships. He added that Malaysia and Singapore would each deploy one C-130 plane and three ships, and that Australia also would assist.
Airbus said in a statement that the missing aircraft was delivered to AirAsia in October 2008, and that the plane had accumulated about 23,000 flight hours during some 13,600 flights. AirAsia said the aircraft had last undergone scheduled maintenance on Nov. 16.
AirAsia, which has dominated cheap travel in Southeast Asia for years, flies short routes of just a few hours, connecting the region's large cities. Recently, it has tried to expand into long-distance flying through its sister airline AirAsia X.
Fernandes, who is the face of AirAsia and an active Twitter user, sent out an earlier tweet saying: “Thank you for all your thoughts and prays. We must stay strong.”
Fernandes stirred controversy earlier this year after incorrectly tweeting that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had landed safely.
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 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 on the plane's disappearance and officials were tracking the situation, the White House said.
The Airbus A320 is a workhorse of modern aviation. Similar to the Boeing 737, it is used to connect cities anywhere from one to five hours apart. There are currently 3,606 A320s in operation worldwide, according to Airbus. The A320 family of jets, which includes A319 and A321, has a very good safety record, with just 0.14 fatal accidents per million takeoffs, according to a safety study published by Boeing in August.
Flight 8501 disappeared while it was at its cruising altitude, which is usually the safest part of a trip. Just 10 percent of fatal crashes from 2004 to 2013 occurred while a plane was in that stage of flight, according to the August Boeing safety report.
In 2007, an Indonesia-owned Adam Air flight carrying 102 people vanished during a domestic flight. Its flight data and cockpit voice recorders were retrieved months later, but much of the fuselage remains on the ocean floor. In 1995, an Indonesian plane operated by Merpati Nusantara Airlines disappeared over open water while flying between islands in the archipelago nation. The 14 crew and passengers were never found.
Passing through bad weather such as severe thunderstorms could have been a factor with Flight 8501. Airbus jets are very sophisticated and are able to automatically adjust to wind shears or other weather disruptions. However, weather has played a role in past air disasters that occurred at cruise elevation, including the 2009 Air France Flight 447 crash over the Atlantic Ocean.
Another possibility is some type of catastrophic metal fatigue caused by the cycle of pressurization and depressurization associated with each takeoff and landing cycle — something that Flight 8501 would have done a lot. Still, metal fatigue is unlikely because this plane is only 6 years old.