UPDATE: Rescuers scouring the Java Sea for a missing AirAsia Indonesia plane with 162 aboard halted their search at nightfall on Sunday and will resume on Monday, Indonesia's transport ministry said.
"We ended at 5.30 pm (6.30pm Singapore time) because it was getting dark. The weather was also not too good as it was getting really cloudy," transport ministry official Hadi Mustofa told AFP.
"Tomorrow we will begin at 7 am, or even earlier than that if the weather is good," he added.
Search underway for plane lost in bad weather, no distress signal sent
JAKARTA - A search operation is underway for an AirAsia Indonesia flight with 162 people on board that lost contact with Indonesian air traffic control en route to Singapore on Sunday, after the pilots asked to change course to avoid bad weather and no distress signal was sent.
Flight QZ8501, which was travelling from Surabaya to Singapore on Sunday morning, has 155 passengers and seven crew members on board. The passengers include 149 Indonesians, one Singaporean, one British, one Malaysian and three Koreans.
The plane left Juanda international airport in Surabaya in east Java at 5.35am (Indonesia time) and was expected to arrive in Singapore at 8.30am (Singapore time). Air Asia said the plane lost contact with air traffic control at 6.24am (Indonesia time). Local officials, however, said the plane lost contact at 6.17am (Indonesia time). Indonesia is one hour behind Singapore.
"The aircraft was on the submitted flight plan route and was requesting deviation due to en route weather before communication with the aircraft was lost while it was still under the control of the Indonesian air traffic control," AirAsia said in a statement.
No distress signal had been sent, said Djoko Murjatmodjo, air transportation director at the Indonesian Transport Ministry.
Last position between Belitung and Kalimantan
The aircraft was between the Indonesian port of Tanjung Pandan and the town of Pontianak in West Kalimantan on Borneo island when it went missing, Murjatmodjo told a news conference. The aircraft had been flying at 32,000 feet and had asked to fly at 38,000 feet to avoid clouds, he said.
Indonesian-based aviation analyst Dudi Sudibyo said climbing to dodge large rain clouds is a standard procedure for aircraft in these conditions. "There is nothing wrong to do that. What happens after that is a question mark," he told Agence France-Presse.
Tanjung Pandan is the main town on Belitung island, roughly half-way between Surabaya and Singapore.
"The plane is in good condition but the weather is not so good," Murjatmodjo told the press conference at Jakarta's airport, addressing reports of severe storms in the area where the jet went missing.
Pilot experienced, plane conducted 13,600 flights
The airline said the captain and first officer were both experienced. The captain in command had a total of 6,100 flying hours and the first officer a total of 2,275 flying hours, said the airline. The aircraft had undergone its last scheduled maintenance on Nov 16.
Search operation underway, Singapore offers help
The Indonesian air force said two of its planes had been dispatched to scour an area of the Java Sea, south-west of Pangkalan Bun in Kalimantan province.
Singapore said it had activated its air force and navy to help. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday: "Sorry to learn that an AirAsia aircraft from Surabaya to Singapore has gone missing. We don't have many details yet, but have offered our help to the Indonesian authorities. Our thoughts are with the passengers and their families."
"Called President Joko Widodo to express concern and offer help. Two RSAF C-130 search and locate aircrafts are on standby, ready to go. Our ministers are following up," he wrote.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the government will assist AirAsia to help find the plane, The Star reported.
The aircraft was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia which dominates South-east Asia's booming low cost airline market. It is 49 per cent owned by Malaysian-based AirAsia. Neither Malaysia's AirAsia nor any of its affiliates in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and India have had any major incidents or crashes.
Tony Fernandes, chief of Malaysia's AirAsia, said on Twitter: "Thanks for all your thoughts and prayers. We must stay strong."
Anxious relatives wait at Surabaya, Singapore airports
Meanwhile hundreds of Indonesians descended on the Juanda airport hoping for news of the missing jet.
A 45-year-old woman told AFP that she had six family members on the plane. "They were going to Singapore for a holiday," she said. "They have always flown with AirAsia and there was no problem. I am shocked to hear the news, and I am very worried that the plane might have crashed."
AirAsia has established an Emergency Call Centre for family or friends of those who may have been on board the flight. The number is +622 1298-50801.