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Planes and ships from four nations resumed the search for an AirAsia Bhd. passenger jet that vanished off the coast of Borneo more than a day ago with 162 people on board.
Twelve vessels, dozens of inflatable boats, plus warships and military planes from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia are scouring the Java Sea, focused on Kumai Bay, for the Airbus Group NV A320 single-aisle jet that was en route to Singapore from the central Indonesian city of Surabaya when it went off radar screens.
The Indonesia search team suspects the plane is under water, national search and rescue agency chief F.H. Bambang Sulistyo said today in Jakarta, with no signal from the emergency local transmitter detected.
A 10-hour hunt yesterday found no sign of the plane that was carrying 155 passengers and seven crew. Poor visibility could hamper search and rescue efforts, Indonesia’s Vice President Jusuf Kalla told Bloomberg TV in a phone interview.
“We’re devastated, but we don’t know what’s happened yet,” said Chief Executive Officer Tony Fernandes, who bought Malaysia-based AirAsia for 1 ringgit (29 cents) in December 2001, at a press conference in Surabaya yesterday. The airline is due to hold a press conference this morning.
Shares of AirAsia dropped as much as 13 percent in Kuala Lumpur trading, their biggest slide since 2011. While AirAsia is based in Sepang, Malaysia, it operates with subsidiaries and affiliates in different countries. The missing plane belonged to its Indonesian operations.
Though the incidents outwardly had little in common, other than they involved vanishing planes from airline companies based in the same country, the disappearance evoked fresh memories of the unresolved disappearance of Malaysian Airline System Bhd.’s Flight 370.
Flight 370 vanished from radar screens en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur March 8 in what authorities called a deliberate act. No debris has been found in what’s become the world’s longest search for a missing passenger jet.
AirAsia QZ8501 was flying at 32,000 feet when the pilots requested to go higher to avoid clouds, Indonesia’s acting Air Transport Director Djoko Murjatmodjo said in Jakarta.
There were storms along AirAsia’s flight path, Accuweather.com said on its website, citing its meteorologist Dave Samuhel. Storms are very active this time of year, Samuhel was quoted as saying, with December and January the wettest period of the year in Indonesia.
The last signal from the plane was between the city of Pontianak on Borneo and the town of Tanjung Pandan on Belitung island. The search was initially concentrated around Belitung, Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan said earlier. Sulistyo said the search area had been widened to include the Karimata strait and land areas in western West Kalimantan.
Robert Mann, head of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York, said searchers missed crucial daylight hours because authorities in Indonesia took an hour and 38 minutes to classify the plane as missing.
“It’s the golden hour in an accident scene; you only have so many daylight hours,” he said in a phone interview.
Australia deployed a P-3 Orion, a surveillance plane made by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. that can pick up emergency signals from a downed plane’s data recorders. Singapore and Malaysia were aiding in the search and Airbus, the sole jet supplier to AirAsia, sent two experts to Jakarta.
There were no immediate reports of any distress signal. The Airbus A320-200 jet was not equipped with a system known as ACARS, which lets a plane automatically relay radio messages about engine performance to manufacturers, according to Rick Kennedy, a spokesman for General Electric Co., which is part of a joint venture that manufactured the jet’s powerplants.
ACARS periodic data bursts can be used to help determine how long a plane flew after the last voice communications.
“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.
AirAsia, the region’s biggest budget airline, had no fatal crashes in its history of more than a decade of operations, according to AviationSafetyNetwork, which tracks accident data.
Its Indonesian operation is one of only five carriers from that country that are allowed to fly into European Union nations. More than 60 others are banned by the EU from flying for safety reasons.
The A320, the first commercial airliner to rely on fly-by-wire technology previously common only in the cockpits of military aircraft, has built a reputation as a sturdy workhorse, with more than 6,000 A320 family aircraft in service to date with over 300 operators.
The plane that disappeared was delivered to AirAsia from the production line in October 2008. Powered by CFM 56-5B engines built by a joint venture of General Electric Co. and France’s Safran SA, the aircraft had accumulated approximately 23,000 flight hours in some 13,600 flights, Airbus said on its website.
The A320 and the related A318, A319 and A321 have among the lowest accident rates of modern commercial aircraft, with a fatal crash in about 1 in every 7 million departures, according to a study published in August by Boeing Co. The last fatal accident involving an Airbus single-aisle plane was in 2010, when an A321 operated by Pakistani carrier Airblue crashed into rugged terrain in heavy rain, killing all 152 people on board.
The AirAsia plane had two pilots, four flight attendants and one engineer on board, AirAsia said.
The captain in command had a total of 20,537 flying hours, including 6,053 hours with AirAsia Indonesia, and the first officer a total of 2,247, the airline said in a statement revising a previous press release.
Of the 155 passengers, 138 were adults, 16 children and one an infant. The plane was carrying one Singaporean, a Malaysian, a person from France, one from the U.K., three from South Korea and 155 Indonesians, according to the latest AirAsia press release.
“This is my worst nightmare,” Fernandes tweeted earlier. “I as your group CEO will be there through these hard times. We will go through this terrible ordeal together.”
Fernandes, 50, assumed 40 million ringgit of debt when he bought AirAsia, according to the airline’s website. Prior to running AirAsia, Fernandes was an employee at Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. The airline had two old aircraft when Fernandes took charge.
AirAsia had 171 A320s in operation at the end of September, according to a quarterly operating statistics statement on its website. The Indonesia entity operated 30 planes, the statement said.
–With assistance from Andrew Janes and Rieka Rahadiana in Jakarta, Kyunghee Park in Singapore, Andrea Rothman in Toulouse and Niluksi Koswanage in Kuala Lumpur.
To contact the reporters on this story: Herdaru Purnomo in Surabaya at firstname.lastname@example.org; Fathiya Dahrul in Jakarta at email@example.com; Chong Pooi Koon in Surabaya at firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anand Krishnamoorthy at email@example.com.