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Missing AirAsia plane likely at ‘bottom of sea’


A top Indonesian search and rescue official on Monday said the missing AirAsia plane, which disappeared over the weekend with 162 people on board after taking off from the Indonesian city of Surabaya, is probably at the bottom of the Java Sea.


"Based on the coordinates given to us and evaluation that the estimated crash position is in the sea, the hypothesis is the plane is at the bottom of the sea... That's the preliminary suspicion and it can develop based on the evaluation of the result of our search," said Bambang Soelistyo, head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency. Soelistyo was speaking to reporters a day after Flight QZ8501 went missing en route from Surabaya to Singapore.

The AirAsia plane disappeared Sunday shortly after the pilot requested a change in course due to bad weather and was denied due to air traffic.

As anxious relatives awaited news of their loved ones, Indonesian search and rescue officials joined multinational teams in the search for the missing aircraft.

Indonesian Air Force spokesman Hadi Tjahjanto told AFP the search was now concentrated on an oil patch spotted off Belitung island in the Java Sea, across from Kalimantan on Borneo island. The army has also been asked to carry out ground searches, including in mountainous areas.

Australia, Singapore and Malaysia deployed planes and ships to assist in the search while China, the US, France and Britain have offered to help in the search and rescue mission. The State Department said later on Monday that Indonesia had requested US help to locate the airliner.

The Airbus A320-200 lost contact en route from Surabaya in Indonesia's east Java to Singapore on Sunday after the crew requested a change of flight plan due to stormy weather, in the third crisis for a Malaysian carrier this year.

Multinational search teams were scouring an area where the sea is 40-50 metres (130-160 feet) deep, according to Soelistyo, who added that Indonesia was coordinating with other countries to access any equipment that may be needed to scour the sea bed.

"Due to the lack of technology that we have, I have coordinated with our foreign minister so we will borrow from other countries which have offered. They are the UK, France and US," he said. "It is not easy to look for something underwater.... That will not break our spirit to continue searching, no way."

Reporting from Malaysia, GRN correspondent Terry Friel said earlier on Monday that search and rescue officials were hoping the improved weather conditions would aid their efforts. “It’s a very clear day here today and with this new information that we believe the plane has gone down into the South Java Sea, it should be easier to find any debris from an air and sea search, which is involving several nations now.”

Distraught relatives spent the night in Surabaya hoping for news of their loved ones. The airline had set up emergency rooms at Surabaya and Singapore airports, said Friel.

“There are counselors on duty and airline staff to keep the families informed…and Tony Fernandes, the head of AirAsia, has gone to Surabaya to personally oversee the operation and look after the families,” he said.

Lost contact

AirAsia said 155 of those on board flight QZ8501 were Indonesian, with three South Koreans and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia, Britain and France. The Frenchman was the co-pilot.

Air traffic controllers lost contact with the twin-engine aircraft around an hour after it left Surabaya's Juanda international airport at about 5:35 am (2235 GMT Saturday).

Shortly before disappearing, the pilot asked to ascend by 6,000 feet to 38,000 feet to avoid heavy clouds, according to an Indonesian transport ministry official.

But their request to fly to 38,000 feet from 32,000 feet could not be approved at that time due to traffic as there was a flight above, and five minutes later the flight disappeared from radar, according to Indonesian officials.

A Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion equipped with sophisticated search equipment took off from the northern Australian city of Darwin while Singapore said it was deploying two C-130 aircraft in addition to naval ships already dispatched.

'Praying for safety'

The missing plane was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia, which dominates Southeast Asia's booming low-cost airline market.

It is the first major crisis to confront the head of the airline, Tony Fernandes, a flamboyant Malaysian mogul who transformed AirAsia into Asia’s biggest budget airline.

Indonesian officials said the company's operations would be reviewed.

"We will do a ground check as well as a review of AirAsia's operations in Indonesia to ensure that all of its activities are better in the future," Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan told reporters.

Indonesia, a vast archipelago with poor land transport infrastructure, has seen explosive growth in low-cost air travel over recent years.

But the air industry has been blighted by poor safety standards in an area that also experiences extreme weather.

AirAsia, which has never suffered a fatal accident, said the missing jet last underwent maintenance on November 16.

Its shares fell 12 percent at the open in Kuala Lumpur but recovered slightly to sit at 2.71 ringgit, down 7.82 percent.

The plane's disappearance comes at the end of a disastrous year for Malaysian aviation.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March with 239 passengers and crew. In July, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over troubled Ukraine, killing all 298 on board.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo said his nation was "praying for the safety" of those onboard. Vice President Jusuf Kalla visited Surabaya on Monday afternoon to meet with the relatives of those missing.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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