Sea Search for Missing AirAsia Jet Begins

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Search teams were scouring the waters off Indonesia on Sunday for an AirAsia commercial jet carrying 162 people that lost contact with air-traffic controllers after encountering rough weather during a two-hour flight to Singapore, officials said.

Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean ships and aircraft were focusing the search for Flight QZ8501 in the Java Sea off the island of East Belitung, roughly halfway between Singapore and the aircraft’s point of origin, the Indonesian city of Surabaya, Indonesian news media reported.

AirAsia, a Malaysia-based low-cost carrier with an excellent safety record, said the aircraft took off from Surabaya at 5:35 a.m. local time and was on its scheduled flight path but had requested to deviate “due to en route weather.”

Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation, said the last communication from the Airbus A320-200 jetliner came at 6:13 a.m. when the pilot “asked to avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 34,000 feet,” the Associated Press reported. He said there was no distress signal from the cockpit.

“We don’t dare to presume what has happened except that it has lost contact,” the AP quoted Murjatmodjo as saying.

To assist Indonesian search-and-rescue teams, Malaysia’s transport minister said he had dispatched three ships and one aircraft while Singapore sent a C-130 cargo plane to join the effort. But as darkness fell over the Java Sea about 12 hours after the plane took off, the search was reportedly being hindered by poor visibility and difficult weather.

Southeast Asia, including parts of Indonesia, has been struck by unusually heavy monsoon rains this month that have caused severe flooding and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes. Satellite images from Sunday morning showed heavy storms north of Surabaya, although aviation experts say it would be unusual for a lightning strike or severe turbulence to damage a commercial aircraft.

AirAsia Indonesia is the Jakarta-based affiliate of AirAsia, a Malaysian low-cost air carrier that operates mainly short-haul flights across Southeast Asia. It was the third major airline incident this year involving Malaysia, whose state-owned carrier, Malaysia Airlines, has already seen one aircraft disappear en route to Beijing and a second shot down over war-torn eastern Ukraine.

Anguished relatives of the 155 passengers and seven crew members – nearly all Indonesian nationals – gathered at a crisis center set up by AirAsia at Juanda international airport in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city.

One family member, identified as Erna W., told the Indonesian news agency Antara that she had four relatives on board.

“I hope I can get information soon on the whereabouts of our family members,” she said through tears, the news agency reported.

The passengers also included three people from South Korea and one each from Malaysia, Singapore and France, the airline said. Sixteen children and one infant were aboard.

AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes said he and other senior airline officials were traveling to Surabaya, where most of the passengers were from.

“My only thoughts are with the passengers and my crew,” Fernandes tweeted. “We put our hope in the [search-and-rescue] operation and thank the Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysian governments.”

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SOURCE: LA Times
Shashank Bengali