Indonesia temporarily suspended AirAsia Bhd. flights on the route of its crashed jetliner, as teams searching for the plane found bodies still strapped in seats and debris resembling parts of the tail.

AirAsia wasn’t authorized to fly from Surabaya to Singapore on Sundays, the day the accident occurred, the Indonesian transport ministry said yesterday. The nation’s navy retrieved bodies wearing seat belts, and the search team used sonar to discover debris on the ocean floor that may be part of the jet’s tail, Colonel Yayan Sofyan said in a Metro TV interview today.

The tail is the location of the flight-data recorder, which could help explain why the six-year-old aircraft on a routine commercial flight crashed on Dec. 28 with 162 people on board. AirAsia violated its route agreement, as it only had permission to fly between Surabaya and Singapore on four other days of the week, according to Indonesia’s transport ministry.

If AirAsia flew on a day when it wasn’t permitted, “then the onus falls not only on the airline but also on the regulator,” Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation research firm Endau Analytics, said by phone today from Johor. “Somebody clearly didn’t do their job.”

Indonesia suspended AirAsia’s license to fly the route pending further evaluation and investigation, according to the statement. Singapore had authorized AirAsia to run daily flights between Surabaya and the city-state during the winter season under a bilateral air services agreement, according to a joint statement today from Singapore’s aviation regulator and airport operator.

Government Probe

AirAsia Indonesia Chief Executive Officer Sunu Widyatmoko confirmed the suspension and said the carrier will cooperate with an investigation, according to comments made at a press conference broadcast on local television today. The company won’t issue a statement until the results of the government review are announced, he said.

“I think it’s strange that the government is suspending the Surabaya-Singapore service only now, when it’s been operating for years with no issue,” Sunardi, who was waiting for an AirAsia flight to Kuala Lumpur today, said in an interview at Surabaya’s airport. “We still don’t know what really happened.”

Like many Indonesians, Sunardi goes by only one name.

Two pieces of the plane were located today about 30 meters (98 feet) underwater, Indonesia search and rescue agency chief Bambang Sulistyo said at a Jakarta briefing. One piece of debris was 9.2 meters long and 4.6 meters wide, while the other measured 7.2 meters in length, Sulistyo said.

“A remotely operated vehicle is being sent down to get pictures,” he said. “We’re facing trouble sending down the vehicle because of high waves.”

Weather Slows Search

Search teams deploying sonar and pinger locators to seek the plane’s flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders — together known as the black box — have been slowed by heavy seas and winds exceeding 40 knots, while three-meter waves prevent divers from inspecting the seabed.

Bad weather is expected to persist through Jan. 4, Sulistyo said at a briefing last night. The international team set 1,575 square nautical miles (5,400 square kilometers) as the most likely area to find the wreckage, Malaysian Navy Chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar said today in a Twitter post.

Divers, helicopters, planes and ships have scoured the Java Sea for the remains of Flight 8501 in a search that has so far helped recover 30 bodies. The black box of the Airbus Group NV jet has eluded recovery efforts near Pangkalan Bun, about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) southeast of Singapore. Parts of the plane were identified after sonar contact at 24 meters under water, Hadi Tjahjanto, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Air Force, said earlier.

‘Abnormal Situation’

The fact that some of the bodies were recovered wearing seat belts suggests the plane may have suffered an aerodynamic stall rather than an in-flight breakup at high altitudes, said Robert Mann, head of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York.

Flying at 32,000 feet, the pilot asked to move to a higher altitude, citing clouds, officials have said.

An “abnormal situation occurred” at that height, said AirNav Indonesia, the nation’s air-navigation operator. Air traffic control gave the plane permission to ascend to 34,000 feet after checking flights in the area and coordinating with other airports, Bambang Tjahjono, AirNav’s head, said today.

More than 90 vessels and aircraft have been involved in the operation that has so far found objects including what appears to be an emergency door and an evacuation slide.

Recovery Effort

The recovery effort will involve salvaging large pieces of the plane, engines, landing gear and other wreckage requiring heavy-duty lifting capability. The parts will then be pieced together for the investigation. Indonesia has sent a tanker to help, Sulistyo said.

The black boxes, which are encased in bright orange to facilitate their retrieval, are waterproof, fortified and designed to emit an electronic signal underwater for 30 days to help searchers find them.

Flight 8501 was the third high-profile incident involving a carrier in Asia last year, raising safety concerns in one of the world’s fastest-growing aviation markets. AirAsia is the biggest customer by units of the A320, a workhorse airliner flown by hundreds of carriers globally.

A spate of crashes in the past decade prompted Indonesia in 2008 to amend laws and boost plane-safety checks after the European Union banned its carriers from flying to Europe. The ban was later partially lifted. Indonesia had 3.77 fatal accidents for every 1 million takeoffs in the three years ended March 31, London-based aviation adviser Ascend said in 2007. The global rate was 0.25 then.

With assistance from Fitri Wulandari, Fathiya Dahrul and Rieka Rahadiana in Jakarta, Eko Listiyorini in Pangkalan Bun, Richard Clough in New York and Niluksi Koswanage in Kuala Lumpur.

To contact the reporters on this story: Christopher Langner in Singapore at; Yudith Ho in Jakarta at; Harry Suhartono in Jakarta at To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stanley James at Ben Scent.

Photo Credit: An AirAsia aircraft on a tarmac. Connie Sandland / Flickr