INDONESIA - Indonesia has ordered the suspension of aviation officials as it investigates the crash of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, while also promising action against any domestic airlines violating their flying permits.
Yesterday's crackdown came as a major search in the Java Sea entered its ninth day, with search teams struggling in bad weather to find more bodies or the "black box" flight data recorders which are crucial in determining the cause of the disaster.
Only three more bodies were recovered yesterday, bringing the total found to 37. A total of 162 passengers and crew members were aboard the Airbus A320 on Dec 28 when it crashed en route from Surabaya to Singapore.
Indonesia says the plane was flying on an unauthorised schedule. Apparently, it had permission to fly the route only on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The flight took off on a Sunday.
The Transport Ministry has now ordered airport and air-navigation managers to "suspend the personnel involved" in the activity of Flight QZ8501, director-general of air transport Djoko Murjatmodjo told reporters.
AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysia-based AirAsia, has already been suspended from flying the Surabaya-Singapore route.
Mr Murjatmodjo said the ministry would halt any other airline found violating its permitted flight schedule in the country.
The Straits Times also reported that the ministry has made it mandatory for all pilots to attend a face-to-face briefing with an airline flight operating officer before departure.
Yesterday's development came after it was revealed that the pilots of Flight QZ8501 did not receive the weather report prior to departure. Indonesia's meteorological agency has said seasonal tropical storms probably contributed to the crash.
Meanwhile, an Indonesian naval patrol vessel has found what the captain said could be the tail of the missing jet, the section where the crucial black box voice and flight data recorders are located.
Ships and aircraft looking for debris and bodies from the plane widened their search area to allow for currents.
"We found what has a high probability of being the tail of the plane," Yayan Sofyan, captain of the patrol vessel, told reporters. However, the Indonesian search- and-rescue agency has yet to confirm the discovery.
The main focus of the search is about 90 nautical miles off the coast of Borneo, where five large objects believed to be parts of the plane - the largest about 18m long - have been pinpointed in shallow waters by ships using sonar.
Search-and-rescue official S. B. Supriyad said the search teams were assessing whether to lift the discovered plane parts off the seabed.
"We hope to find the black boxes as soon as possible," he said. "If the tail is upside down and the door to the black box is in the mud, we need to dig the seafloor, and that's difficult. We are hoping the door to the black box is facing upwards so it is easier for us to fetch it."
Indonesia's military chief, General Moeldoko, said he had offered to take victims' relatives out to the crash site to pay their respects.
"We will bring them to the navy ships and we will take them to the location to scatter flowers, and I hope coming to the location can reduce their sadness and the feeling of loss," he told reporters.