Jakarta/Singapore, Dec 28 (IANS) An AirAsia Airbus with 162 people on board disappeared Sunday amid thunderstorms while flying from Indonesia to Singapore, prompting a major search by the two countries’ military.
The Malaysian-owned aircraft had taken off at 5.20 a.m. (local time) from the Indonesian city of Surabaya and was to land at Singapore’s Changi Airport at 8.30 a.m., the airline and officials said.
Indonesian officials said the pilot sought an unusual route due to thunderstorms between Kalimantan and Belitung island, before the low-cost airline lost contact with air traffic control.
The aircraft was then at 32,000 feet over Java Sea, in Indonesian territory.
“The weather was not good, it was bad at the estimated location the plane lost contact,” an Indonesian transport ministry official added.
The plane had 162 passengers and crew on board including 138 adults, 16 children, an infant, two pilots and five cabin crew.
A total of 156 were Indonesians. There were three South Koreans and one person each from France, Malaysia and Singapore.
In no time, the air force and navy ships from Indonesia and Singapore launched a major search for the missing plane in the Java sea. Australia too has offered help, and so has Malaysia.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said the plane went off the radar 42 minutes after take off, The Star newspaper said.
“This means the possibility of something untoward happening to the aircraft,” he said in Kuala Lumpur.
According to AirAsia, the captain of the Airbus A320-200 has 6,100 flying hours and the first officer 2,275 flying hours.
Grieving family members and friends of the passengers thronged the airports at Surabaya, to which most of the passengers belonged, as well as Singapore. Some wept openly.
AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes flew from Malaysia to Surabaya. “My prayers are with the (distraught) families,” he said.
Meanwhile, Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiang Lai rubbished claims that wreckage of the aircraft had been found in the search area.
The incident comes at the end of a disastrous year for Malaysia’s airlines.
National flag carrier Malaysia Airlines lost two aircraft this year. Its flight MH370 went missing March 8 enroute Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew on board.
On July 17, Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
AirAsia, which started operations under the present ownership in 2001, flies to 88 destinations. In India, AirAsia’s maiden flight took off June 11 from Bengaluru to Panjim.
The Indo-Malaysian joint venture of AirAsia flies to and from Bengaluru, Jaipur, Chennai, Kochi, Chandigarh, Pune and Goa, an airline spokesperson told IANS.
It also flies between Kuala Lumpur and Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu and Kolkata and connects Chennai and Bangkok.
Says the AirAsia web site: “Our commitment to low fares lies in our promise of ‘Now Everyone Can Fly’.
“Our service targets guests who can do without the frills of full-service airlines in exchange for low fares.”