By ALI KOTARUMALOS and MARGIE MASON
JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — An astonishingly tragic year for air travel in Southeast Asia turned worse Sunday when an AirAsia plane carrying 162 people disappeared over stormy Indonesian waters, with no word on its fate despite several hours of searching by air and sea.
AirAsia Flight 8501 vanished in airspace thick with storm clouds on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore. Searchers had to fight against heavy rain.
The Malaysia-based carrier’s loss comes on top of the still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July over Ukraine.
At the Surabaya airport, passengers’ relatives pored over the plane’s manifest, crying and embracing. Nias Adityas, a housewife from Surabaya, was overcome with grief when she found the name of her husband, Nanang Priowidodo, on the list.
The 43-year-old tour agent had been taking a family of four on a trip to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia’s Lombok island, and had been happy to get the work.
“He just told me, `Praise God, this new year brings a lot of good fortune,'” Adityas recalled, holding her grandson tight while weeping uncontrollably. “He apologized because he could not join us for the new year celebration.”
Nearly all the passengers and crew are Indonesians, who are frequent visitors to Singapore, particularly on holidays.
The Airbus A320 took off Sunday morning from Indonesia’s second-largest city and was about halfway to Singapore when it vanished from radar. The jet had been airborne for about 42 minutes.
There was no distress signal from the twin-engine, single-aisle plane, said Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation.
The last communication between the cockpit and air traffic control was at 6:13 a.m. (23:13 GMT Saturday), when one of the pilots “asked to avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 34,000 feet (10,360 meters),” Murjatmodjo said. The jet was last seen on radar at 6:16 a.m. and was gone a minute later, he told reporters.
Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia launched a search-and-rescue operation near Belitung island in the Java Sea, the area where the airliner lost contact with the ground.
The air search was suspended Sunday evening and was to resume Monday morning, said Achmad Toha of Indonesia’s search-and-rescue agency. Some ships continued looking for the aircraft overnight, he said.
AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes flew to Surabaya and told a news conference that the focus should be on the search and the families rather than the cause of the incident.
“We have no idea at the moment what went wrong,” said Fernandes, a Malaysian businessman who founded the low-cost carrier in 2001. “Let’s not speculate at the moment.”
Malaysia-based AirAsia has a good safety record and had never lost a plane before.
“This is my worst nightmare,” Fernandes tweeted.
But Malaysia itself has already endured a catastrophic year, with 239 people still missing from Flight 370 and all 298 people aboard Flight 17 killed when it was shot down over rebel-held territory in Ukraine.
AirAsia said Flight 8501 was on its submitted flight plan but had requested a change due to weather.
Sunardi, a forecaster at Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency, said dense storm clouds were detected up to 13,400 meters (44,000 feet) in the area at the time.
“There could have been turbulence, lightning and vertical as well as horizontal strong winds within such clouds,” said Sunardi, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.
Airline pilots routinely fly around thunderstorms, said John Cox, a former accident investigator. Using on-board radar, flight crews can typically see a storm forming from more than 100 miles away.
In such cases, pilots have plenty of time to find a way around the storm cluster or look for gaps to fly through, he said.
“It’s not like you have to make an instantaneous decision,” Cox said. Storms can be hundreds of miles long, but “because a jet moves at 8 miles a minute, if you to go 100 miles out of your way, it’s not a problem.”
It was unclear based on comments from authorities what air traffic controllers saw on their screens when the plane disappeared from radar, he noted.
Authorities have not said whether they lost only the secondary radar target, which is created by the plane’s transponder, or whether the primary radar target, which is created by energy reflected from the plane’s body, was lost as well, Cox said.
The plane had an Indonesian captain and a French co-pilot, five cabin crew members and 155 passengers, including 16 children and one infant, the airline said in a statement. Among the passengers were three South Koreans, a Malaysian, a British national and his 2-year-old Singaporean daughter. The rest were Indonesians.
AirAsia said the captain has a total of 6,100 flying hours, but Fernandes later said the number is more than 20,000. The first officer has 2,275 flying hours.
At Surabaya airport, dozens of relatives sat in a room waiting for news, many of them talking on mobile phones and crying. Some looked dazed.
Dimas, who goes by one name, said his wife, 30-year-old Ratri Sri Andriani, had been on the flight to lead a group of 25 Indonesian tourists on a trip to Singapore and Malaysia. He was holding out hope that the plane had made an emergency landing.
“We can just pray and hope that all those aboard are safe,” said Dimas, who was surrounded by Ratri’s parents and friends at the airport crisis center. “We are worried, of course, but we have to surrender to her fate.”
Indonesia’s search-and-rescue head, Bambang Soelistyo, said his agency would search Monday with 12 ships and three helicopters, along with five military aircraft and a number of warships.
Malaysia and Singapore each planned to deploy one C-130 plane and three ships. Australia will also help, he added.
The missing aircraft was delivered to AirAsia in October 2008, and the plane had accumulated about 23,000 flight hours during some 13,600 flights, Airbus said in a statement.
The aircraft had last undergone scheduled maintenance on Nov. 16, according to AirAsia.
The airline, which has dominated cheap travel in Southeast Asia for years, flies short routes of just a few hours, connecting the region’s large cities. Recently, it has tried to expand into long-distance flying through sister airline AirAsia X.
Fernandes, who is the face of AirAsia and an active Twitter user, stirred controversy earlier this year after incorrectly tweeting that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had landed safely.
William Waldock, an expert on air crash search and rescue with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, cautioned against drawing comparisons to Flight 370.
The circumstances bode well for finding Flight 8501 since the intended flight time was less than two hours, and there is a known position where the plane disappeared, he said.
The A320 family of jets, which includes the A319 and A321, has a good safety record, with just 0.14 fatal accidents per million takeoffs, according to a safety study published by Boeing in August.
Flight 8501 disappeared while at its cruising altitude, which is usually the safest part of a trip. Just 10 percent of fatal crashes from 2004 to 2013 occurred while a plane was in that stage of flight, the safety report said.
Associated Press writers Joan Lowy in Austin, Texas, Scott Mayerowitz in New York and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.