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AirAsia flight from Indonesia to Singapore loses contact with air traffic control

Sydney Morning Herald Sydney Morning Herald 28/12/2014

A relative of Air Asia flight QZ8501 passengers weep as she waits for the latest news on the missing jetliner at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia. © AP Photo/Trisnadi A relative of Air Asia flight QZ8501 passengers weep as she waits for the latest news on the missing jetliner at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia.

A search and rescue mission for AirAsia flight QZ 8501has been halted after dusk set in and failing light prevented the operation from proceeding.

The flight from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore with 162 people onboard lost contact with air traffic control on Sunday.

AirAsia said there were 156 Indonesian passengers onboard, three South Koreans, one French, one Singaporean, and one Malaysian.

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop said she understood no Australians were on the plane.

"It's always deeply concerning when we hear news such as this and all we can do is ascertain as much as we can about the details of the flight and to determine whether there were any Australians on board," she said.

She added that she had offered Australia's "support and assistance if they should need it".

The AirAsia flight went missing as it flew towards Singapore. © Google Maps The AirAsia flight went missing as it flew towards Singapore.

The missing plane departed at 5.35am Indonesian time (9.35am AEDST) and was scheduled to arrive at 8.30am Singaporean time (11.30am AEDST).

Transport Ministry official Hadi Mustofa said the aircraft lost contact with the Jakarta air traffic control tower early Sunday morning. AirAsia said this occured at 7.24am local time (11.17am AEDST).

Mr Mustafa said the last communication was from the pilot asking for permission to change the height from 32,000 to 34,000 feet in the Kumai Strait near Belitung due to bad weather.

J.A. Barata, a spokesman for the Ministry of Transportation, said the pilot had asked to go to 38,000 feet to avoid clouds to the left.

Just five minutes later, at 6.17am local time, the tower in Jakarta lost contact with the aircraft. At 6.18am it had vanished from the radar. At 7.55am the flight was officially declared missing. When it went missing, the plane still had enough fuel for four hours flying time.

Family members of passengers of missing Malaysian air carrier AirAsia flight QZ8501 gather at Juanda international airport in Surabaya in East Java. © AFP PHOTO / Juni KRISWANTO Family members of passengers of missing Malaysian air carrier AirAsia flight QZ8501 gather at Juanda international airport in Surabaya in East Java.

As a press conference, Indonesia's Minister for Transport, Ignasius Jonan, said the flight went missing between Tanjung Pandan and Pontianak, and, on the last contact, it was not far from the shoreline.

The search would begin where it went missing and then get wider. Search and rescue agencies were on the move from Singapore and civilian shipping was asked to provide any information if they saw anything.

The Minister of Transport asked the media not to make any assumptions, but to be patient, and as soon as they had any information it would be released. They intended to give an hourly update at the airport.

Earlier, Tatang Zaenudin, deputy of personnel from Basarnas, said the search and rescue agency had deployed seven ships to search in the sea near Belitung.

A crisis centre has been set up at Surabaya airport and relatives have begun arriving to tearfully view a full list of names of those who were on the flight.

Indonesian vice-president Jusuf Kalla tweeted: "We pray together with hope that the AirAsia plane QZ8501 SBY-Sin, which lost contact, is soon found and all passengers and crew have survived."

Electronic screens shows flight information including AirAsia QZ8501 (top R), inside terminal 1 at Changi international airport in Singapore. © AFP PHOTO / MOHD FYROL Electronic screens shows flight information including AirAsia QZ8501 (top R), inside terminal 1 at Changi international airport in Singapore.

AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes tweeted: "Thank you for all your thoughts and prays. We must stay strong,"

One woman at the crisis centre had seven family members including her mother and brother on board the flight.

"AirAsia Indonesia regrets to confirm that flight QZ8501 from Surabaya to Singapore has lost contact with air traffic control at 07:24hrs this morning," the airline said.

"At the present time we unfortunately have no further information regarding the status of the passengers and crew members on board, but we will keep all parties informed as more information becomes available."

Shortly after the airline posted its first message, it changed its Twitter and Facebook profile pictures, removing its red and white logo and replacing it with a grey and white one.

"At this time, search and rescue operations are in progress and AirAsia is cooperating fully and assisting the rescue service," the airline said.

"AirAsia has established an Emergency Call Centre that is available for family or friends of those who may have been on board the aircraft. The number is: +622129850801.

"AirAsia will release further information as soon as it becomes available. Updated information will also be posted on the AirAsia website, www.airasia.com."

A Statement released by AirAsia after the plane went missing. © AirAsia/Facebook A Statement released by AirAsia after the plane went missing.

AirAsia said the captain in command had a total of 6100 flying hours and the first officer a total of 2275 flying hours.

The aircraft, an Airbus A320-200 with the registration number PK-AXC, had undergone its last scheduled maintenance on November 16.

The head of the rescue operation from the Indonesian search and rescue agency said there were three possibilities when a plane lost contact at the height it did: engine failure, that it had ditched over the sea, or was diverted to another airport.

The other airports in the region have been contacted, but have no record of a diversion, he said.

Airforce spokesman Marsma Hadi Tjahjanto confirmed the air force was using the last point of contact to conduct an air search. He said the air force radar recorded the weather at the time as cloudy.

Indonesian aviation expert Gerry Soejatman tweeted that the Indonesian Air Force had dispatched a 737-200MPA to search for the missing flight, and had cited the weather in the area as "challenging".

Mr Soejatman also tweeted an alleged leaked photograph from the Air Traffic Control screen which showed the plane was last spotted at 36,300 feet and climbing, but that its ground speed was a very slow 353 knots.

An Indonesia Air Asia plane flying over the Sukarno-Hatta airport in Tangerang. © ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images An Indonesia Air Asia plane flying over the Sukarno-Hatta airport in Tangerang.

'Never get lost'

AirAsia was embroiled in controversy earlier this year after publishing an article in their in-flight magazine claiming their planes would "never get lost".

The airline was forced to withdraw the Travel 3Sixty magazine from circulation in April after the comment sparked outrage due to the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in March.

The article told travellers "Pilot training in AirAsia is continuous and very thorough. Rest assured that your captain is well prepared to ensure your plane will never get lost".

However, AirAsia insisted the article was written and published well before the disappearance of flight MH370.

An apology was issued for the article by AirAsia executive chairman Kamarudin Meranun. "It truly saddens me that this article was released at such an inopportune moment," he said.

It has been a year to forget for Malaysian airline companies, given the disappearance of MH370 in March and MH17 in July.

The wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has not been found nine months on, as well as the 227 passengers on board.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was expected to touch down in Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, but was shot down over area controlled by pro-Russian separatists. All 283 passengers and 15 crew on board were killed.

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