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AP Photo/Trisnadi
An airport official checks a map of Indonesia at the crisis center set up by local authority for the missing AirAsia flight QZ8501, at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia.
QZ8501

An AirAsia flight from Indonesia to Singapore has disappeared in stormy weather

By Devjyot Ghoshal & Diksha Madhok

An AirAsia flight with 162 people on board is missing after losing contact with air traffic control. Authorities have initiated search and rescue operations, but these have been suspended overnight and will resume in the morning.

Flight QZ8501 last had contact with air traffic control at 7:24 am local time (11:24 pm GMT) on Dec. 28, shortly after taking off from the Indonesian city of Surabaya.

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“The aircraft was on the submitted flight plan route and was requesting deviation due to enroute weather before communication with the aircraft was lost while it was still under the control of the Indonesian Air Traffic Control (ATC),” AirAsia said in a statement at 5:23 am GMT on Dec. 28, or about six hours after it last made contact with authorities on the ground. An Indonesian government spokesman added that the plane had requested approval to climb higher to avoid a cloud formation, just minutes before losing contact.

Search suspended

Search operations led by Indonesia, with the assistance of Singapore and Malaysia, were reportedly hampered due to bad weather on the Java Sea and have been currently suspended.

“We ended at 5:30 pm (10.30 GMT) because it was getting dark. The weather was also not too good as it was getting really cloudy,” transport ministry official Hadi Mustofa told AFP. ”Tomorrow we will begin at 7 am, or even earlier than that if the weather is good.”

The Indonesian military has deployed a group of aircrafts, warships and  a helicopter to the missing aircraft’s last reported position. Malaysia has sent three vessels and three aircrafts, while Singapore has dispatched one military transport aircraft.

Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla is currently heading the search operation that involve the military, the Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) and the national police.

AirAsia’s safety record

AirAsia pioneered the low-cost airline business model in southeast Asia—one of the world’s fastest-growing aviation markets—with the slogan “Now Everyone Can Fly.” The airline, founded by former music executive Tony Fernandes, has a solid track record when it comes to safety, with only one recorded accident in its 20-plus year history—a hard landing in the rain resulting in damage to the plane, but no injuries to passengers or crew—according to the Aviation Safety Network database.

Indonesia AirAsia, which operates the missing plane, is a 49%-owned subsidiary of the Malaysia-based parent company, AirAsia Berhad. The company has many other cross-border subsidiaries including AirAsia India, Philippines AirAsia, and Thai AirAsia.

Indonesia AirAsia, along with many other Indonesian airlines, was banned from travel to the EU in 2007 due to inadequate safety provisions, but was removed from the blacklist in 2010. The long-haul Indonesia AirAsia X and Philippines AirAsia are still subject to EU travel bans.

The Airbus A320-200 aircraft was being piloted by a captain with a total of 6,100 flying hours and a first officer with over 2,200 flying hours, the company said. The two pilots were accompanied by five cabin crew.

Among the 155 passengers on board were 158 adults, 16 children and one infant, the airline said. The majority of passengers and crew on the flight were Indonesian nationals (155);  there were also three South Koreans, and one each from Singapore, Malaysia, France and the UK.

AP Photo/Trisnadi
Relatives of the passengers of AirAsia flight QZ8501 comfort each other at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia.

The planned route was well to the south of Kuala Lumpur, the origin of Malaysia Airline MH370, which went missing in March en route to Beijing, and has yet to be found. The lengthy and still ongoing search for MH370 highlighted the difficulty of detecting airplane debris on the open seas.

Despite the high-profile disasters of 2014, aviation has become markedly safer over time.