LONDON – Rescuers in Indonesia and Singapore were preparing to resume their search in the early hours of Monday morning for any signs of Air Asia Flight QZ8501 – the third major aviation disaster to hit Malaysia this year – after it disappeared with 162 people on board.
The Air Asia flight set off from Indonesia, heading to Singapore, on Sunday morning.
And in Surabaya, Indonesiaâ€™s second-largest city, families of the passengers spent Sunday night in limbo as the search for the plane was hampered by the thunder storms lashing the Java Sea.
Nearly 10 months after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared off the coast of Malaysia, the efforts to find the Air Asia jet immediately summoned uncomfortably familiar feelings of mystery and tragedy.
Despite dropping off the radar at 6.17am on Sunday, near an Indonesian naval base and in an area busy with ships, rescue teams could find no trace of the plane after a full day of searching.
â€œThis is my worst nightmare,â€ said Tony Fernandes, Air Asiaâ€™s chief executive, after the plane was officially declared missing.
The Airbus A320-200 vanished in bad weather, and appeared to be trying to avoid a storm by banking and climbing in altitude as it flew from Surubaya to Singapore. But the monsoon conditions did not challenge other planes in the vicinity and its sudden disappearance an hour after take-off, without triggering a distress signal, perplexed experts.
â€œThe area where it went missing includes a large expanse of sea and islands covered in deep vegetation on either side of its flight path,â€ said Alistair Rosenschein, a retired British Airways Boeing 747 pilot. â€œAnd it is not unusual for air crew to delay or simply miss radio transmissions because of flight deck workload, distractions or radio failure,â€ he added.
The overwhelming majority of those on board were Indonesian, but there were also a few South Koreans, Singaporeans, Malaysians, and one British passenger.
Choi Chi Man, born in Yorkshire and a graduate from the university of Essex, was travelling with his two-year-old daughter Zoe. He was said by friends to only be on the flight because four seats were not available on an earlier flight – which his wife and son boarded.
On Sunday night his parents, who lived in Hull, were meeting with their second son before travelling together to the region.
Weeping relatives arrived at Changi airport in Singapore and at Surubayaâ€™s airport throughout Sunday, desperately seeking news.
Louise Sidharta, a 25-year-old Indonesian, said her fiancÃ© Alain, had been on the plane with his family.
â€œWe had planned to marry in May next year,â€ she said. â€œWe are not thinking negatively right now. We are only having positive thoughts.â€
As some families braced themselves for bad news, others were breathing sighs of relief. There were 23 no-shows for Flight QZ8501, according to Air Asia, including three families with young children.
One family of five, including a ten-year-old boy, decided not to take the flight at the last minute because their grandfather had fallen ill.
In another stroke of serendipity, Ari Putro Cahyono told the Jakarta Post he had planned to take the flight with nine other family members but they missed their plane after mixing up the departure time. â€œI did not read the email notifying the change of the departure schedule,â€ he said.
As the search and rescue teams failed to locate the aircraft, Mr Fernandes flew to Surubaya to face crying relatives.
â€œObviously this is a massive shock to us and we are devastated by what has happened. Itâ€™s unbelievable. We donâ€™t know whatâ€™s happened yet,â€ said Mr Fernandes, who also owns Queens Park Rangers, the football club.
â€œOur concern right now is for the relatives and the next of kin. Thatâ€™s something more important for us, for our crewâ€™s families and passengersâ€™ families, we will look after them. Thatâ€™s our number one priority.â€ Mr Fernandes said the missing aircraft had â€œnever had any problems whatsoeverâ€.
â€œThe aircraft had gone through all checks, it just had a check the end of November, it followed all procedures that were needed and itâ€™s in good condition,â€ he said.
At least three Indonesian warships and five aircraft are combing the area for the plane, while Malaysia sent three boats and three aircraft and Singapore said it sent a C-130 plane.
Military teams were also conducting land searches, Indonesian authorities said, but by nightfall no trace of the plane had been found.
â€œWe are mobilizing all personnel to find the plane. Our focus is to find it as soon as possible,â€ Jusuf Kalla, the vice president, told a press conference in Jakarta, admitting there was a â€œhigh possibilityâ€ an accident had taken place.
India and Australia offered to send military assets including helicopters, Hercules transport planes and vessels to assist with the search.
Flight 8501 was carrying 155 passengers and seven crew members when it took off from Surubayaâ€™s Juanda International Airport on Sunday morning, according to an Air Asiaâ€™s flight manifest.
Those onboard were a mix of domestic helpers, business people and tourists, according to local reports. There were 137 adults and 18 children.
The incident caps an appalling year for southeast Asian airlines.
In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished as it flew from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew on board. That plane has still not been found, instead becoming one of the greatest mysteries of modern aviation.
In July, a second Malaysia Airlines flight, MH17, came down over eastern Ukraine, with 298 people on board after apparently being struck by a missile fired by pro-Russia separatists.
Air Asia is also Malaysian-owned.
Air Asia faced criticisim in the wake of the disappearance of MH370 after an article in its inflight magazine claimed the companyâ€™s planes would â€œnever get lost.â€
â€œPilot training in Air Asia is continuous and very thorough. Rest assured that your captain is well prepared to ensure your plane will never get lost,â€ the article said.
The airline subsequently apologised and withdrew the magazine, claiming the article had been written long before the Malaysia Airlines disaster.
The Air Asia aircraft that went missing on Sunday was delivered to the company in 2008 and had clocked up 23,000 flight hours on 13,600 flights, Airbus, its manufacturer, said in a statement. The plane had undergone its last scheduled maintenance on November 16, Air Asia said.
Captain Irianto, the planeâ€™s pilot, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, was an experienced professional with 6,100 hours of flying experience. â€œHe is always helping people because he is a very caring person,â€ his nephew, Doni, was quoted as saying by Singaporeâ€™s Straits Times, adding that his uncle was a former Indonesian Air Force pilot. â€œIf there is a sick relative who needed help and even money, my uncle would be there.â€
Joko Bagus, who knows the pilot from a motorcycle club of which both men are members, said his friends had not given up.
â€œWe ourselves have no idea what happened to the plane,â€ he said. â€œBut our hope is that all is well, and the plane lost its way but nothing bad happened to it.â€ .
Ominously, Air Asia immediately changed the colour of its normally bright red webpage to a somber mix of grey and black.
â€œOur thoughts and prayers are with those on board QZ8501,â€ read a statement posted by the company on Sunday night. – The Telegraph UK
FACTS ABOUT AIRASIA INDONESIA
AirAsia, which has been operating in Indonesia for more than 10 years, is 49% owned by Malaysia-listed AirAsia Bhd and the remaining stake is held by an Indonesian company that has three individuals as its shareholders.
According to industry officials, they are Pin Harris with 20%, Senjaya Wijaya with 21% and privately held entity PT Fersindo Nusaperkasa with 10%.
The private company is believed to be linked to Riza Chalid, a tycoon said to have close links to Probowo Subianto, who put up a strong challenge against Joko Widodo for the presidency post recently.
The air operator certificate (AOC) is held by Pin Harris, who used to operate AWAIR (Air Wagon International).
AirAsia has stakes of between 40% and 49% in all its operations in the region and India because the regulations do not allow a foreign majority-owned company to hold an aviation operating licence. To circumvent the rule, AirAsia holds a minority stake and its partners in these countries are normally private companies owned by well-known individuals.
Each of the entities is responsible for the operations in their respective countries, but there are some areas which are handled at the AirAsia level. One of them is the procurement of planes.
AirAsia operates in Indonesia under the company PT Indonesia Airasia and the joint venture company is legally a separate entity from the listed AirAsia based in Malaysia. However, it operates under the AirAsia brand name. This is similar to AirAsiaâ€™s set-ups in India, Thailand and the Philippines.
Also, Tan Sri Tony Fernandes is the group chief executive officer and in charge of all operations in the respective countries where AirAsia has a presence.
Indonesia is the biggest market for airlines in the region and also the most competitive. AirAsia, for all its branding, only has a 5% market share in the country, where there are more than 50 airlines operating.
According to AirAsiaâ€™s annual report last year, Indonesia AirAsia carried 34% more passengers compared to 2012, totalling 7.85 million. Last year, it launched a total of 13 new routes â€“ four domestic and nine international.
Amidst the keen competition, Indonesia AirAsia has focused on optimising its network and maximising aircraft utilisation for both domestic and international flights.
There are plans to reinforce the Bandung and Medan hubs with new routes to stimulate demand, as well as to add more flights to cater to existing demand on popular routes.
Just like the Indonesian venture, Thai AirAsia is 45% owned by AirAsia and the rest is held by its partners. In the Philippines, AirAsia has a 39.9% in Philippines AirAsia.
In March last year, Philippines AirAsia formed a strategic alliance with Zest Air, acquiring a 49% stake in the low-cost carrier in a bid to expand in that country.
AirAsia India, which started operations last year, is a joint venture with AirAsia holding a 49% stake, and Tata Group and Telestra Tradeplace taking up the balance.