As darkness fell over the Java Sea shortly after 6 p.m. local time (6 a.m. ET) on Monday, the international fleet of surveillance aircraft and helicopters searching for the doomed Air Asia flight returned to their bases without any confirmed sighting of the missing aircraft.
There had been hope of a speedy resolution to the mystery of the plane's location earlier in the day when an Indonesian official said that an Australian surveillance plane had spotted “suspicious” objects in the Java Sea that could yet be the wreckage of missing AirAsia Flight QZ8501.
Jakarta’s air force base commander, Rear Marshal Dwi Putranto, said that an Australian Orion aircraft had reported seeing objects in the sea near tiny Nangka Island, which is about 100 miles southwest of Pangkalan Bun, a larger town in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province.
Nangka Island is about 700 miles from the location where the plane lost contact with air-traffic control, after requesting a change in altitude to avoid bad weather.
However, Putranto sounded a note of caution in relation to the possible wreckage sighting, telling the Associated Press, “We cannot be sure whether it is part of the missing AirAsia plane.”
Indonesia’s vice president, Jusuf Kalla, also sought to lower expectations, saying there was “insufficient evidence” the objects were from the missing AirAsia plane.
In a press conference, Kalla said, “We have checked the information relayed to us. However, we have not found enough evidence to confirm that anything is there.”
As the sun set on Monday and the search was called off for the day, there had been no positive update on the possible wreckage.
The news of the sighting of possible wreckage comes after the head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency told reporters earlier on Monday that Flight QZ8501, which disappeared Sunday over the Java Sea as it flew from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore with 162 people on board, is likely at the bottom of the shallow Java sea.
Bambang Soelistyo said at a press conference, “Based on the coordinates given to us, and evaluation that the estimated crash position is in the sea, the hypothesis is, the plane is at the bottom of the sea.”
Distraught relatives have been rushong to airports for news about the missing aircraft, an Airbus A320-200 carrying seven crew members and 155 passengers, including 16 children and one infant—all now presumed lost.
Soelistyo said Indonesia doesn’t possess “the tools” to retrieve a plane from the seabed, adding that the country is seeking help from nations that do have the necessary equipment, such as submersible vehicles. “I have coordinated with our foreign minister so we will borrow from other countries which have offered,” he said. He cited Britain, the United States, and France as possible lenders.
Around mid-afternoon Monday, officials announced that Indonesia has accepted Singapore’s offer of four specialists from that country’s Air Accident Investigation Bureau, along with two sets of underwater locator beacon detectors, to help in the search.
South Korea has also offered to help in the search, and Australia provided the P3 Orion aircraft that spotted the possible wreckage.
Singapore and Indonesia authorities have been searching the heavily trafficked patch of ocean between Indonesia, Borneo, and Southeast Asia, as well as mountainous parts of the area where the plane dropped off the radar.
Air-traffic control in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, lost contact with the Airbus plane around 7:30 a.m. Sunday local time near Belitung Island—about halfway between Surabaya and Singapore—authorities said. It was supposed to land in Singapore at 8:57 a.m. local time. The pilot had earlier called air-traffic control reporting heavy clouds and asked to move up to 38,000 feet from 32,000 feet. Some thunderstorms were in the area, according to weather reports. On board were 149 Indonesians, three South Koreans, one Singaporean, a Malaysian, and one Briton, the airline said. The pilot is French and the other crewmembers Indonesian.
Speaking at a news conference Sunday, Joko Muryo Atmodjo, an Indonesian transport ministry official, said no distress signal had been received from the plane. “Hopefully we can find the location of the plane as soon as possible,” he said, adding, “What I need to emphasize is until now, we have not found out how the plane fell or what kind of emergency it was.”
Dozens of tearful family members huddled at the Surabaya and Singapore airports, anxiously awaiting news of loved ones. The scenes had an eerie—and depressing—familiarity, immediately evoking images from nine months ago, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished from the radar with 239 people on board over the south Indian Ocean. That plane still has not been found, sparking much speculation and many conspiracy theories.
The latest disappearance is another huge aviation blow for Malaysia, where both Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia are based. The two carriers are headquartered in Kuala Lumpur but have vastly different profiles and operating philosophies. The difference was emphasized immediately after QZ8501 went missing. In marked contrast to the shambling and sometimes contradictory performance of Malaysia Airlines officials when MH370 apparently fell out of the sky, AirAsia released the news—after an initial, unexplained delay—providing as much information as it had available. AirAsia’s website has a large headline at the top right, “Updates on AirAsia flight QZ8501,” with the flight number in larger type. A click sends a user to a statement, a list of passenger nationalities, emergency call-center numbers, and other information.
Malaysia Airlines, or MAS, is the nation’s flag carrier, and it owns two subsidiary airlines. It had a relatively low profile until the March 8, 2014, disaster in which MH370, a flight borne on a Boeing 777, disappeared from sight, a calamity that later compounded by the apparent shoot-down over Ukraine of the airline’s Flight MH17 in July. For years, the carrier was 70 percent owned by the Malaysian government, but after the twin catastrophes, the government announced it was taking full control of the company.
AirAsia, on the other hand, is a relatively new carrier, an upstart in the tradition of Southwest Airlines in the United States. Launched just 13 years ago, it quickly became a serious rival to MAS and a rising juggernaut in Asia. Riffing off the slogan “Now Everyone Can Fly,” the carrier offered no-frills flights that were both cheap and plentiful. Its bright red-and-white aircraft, which look like giant Coca-Cola cans with wings, quickly became ubiquitous, and soon there was a proliferaton of subsidiaries including Thai AirAsia, Indonesia AirAsia, Philippines AirAsia, AirAsia India, AirAsia Zest, and AirAsia X, which focuses on long-haul routes.
“Mostly people on a budget use it,” Franz Dobersberger, managing director of a Bangkok travel agency, told The Daily Beast. “It is very popular in Southeast Asia and has had massive growth.”
The carrier indeed appeals to those who don’t have a lot of money, notably backpackers and students as well as the thousands of tourists from China, whose burgeoning prosperity has single-handedly created its own market in the travel industry.
“They somehow offer ridiculously cheap flights throughout the ASEAN region,” said Devandy Ario Putro, 21, a recent university graduate from Jakarta who has flown the carrier almost 10 times, including to Bangkok. “For many people that is the only way we can fly because it’s affordable. And it’s pretty efficient. The service is reasonably good, although it’s a low-cost airline, and the cabin crews are nice.”
And AirAsia is convenient, and can be booked on short notice: “It was the only airline available from Perth when all the other flights to Bali were full,” says Christian Ford, a 39-year-old Australian landscaper. “It was the one that saved me so I could have Christmas in Bali.”
The feisty airline is the brainchild of entrepreneur Tony Fernandes, a Malaysian of Indian descent who also is a British citizen. Fernandes introduced his no-frills approach to Malaysians, mortgaging his home and using his personal savings in 2001 to buy AirAsia, which was then a heavily indebted arm of a government-owned conglomerate. Two years later, the savvy London School of Economics graduate persuaded then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to push for open-skies agreements with neighboring countries and his brash, nimble airline was on its way.
Fernandes has been dubbed the Asian version of Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson. It is an apt comparison given Fernandes’s iconoclastic operational tactics and ability to undercut legacy carriers—as well as the fact that he was once financial controller for Branson’s Virgin Records group. Fernandes pushed AirAsia from its Southeast Asia aviation theater to more than 80 destinations worldwide, including to places such as Tokyo, London, United Arab Emirates, China, and France. Forbes estimates his wealth at $650 million.
Fernandes said at a press briefing that the company is “devastated by what happened” and expressed his great concern for next of kin. “We hope that the aircraft is found quickly, and we can find out the cause of what has happened,” he said.
Whatever does happen with Flight QZ8501, few expect the incident to flummox Fernandes or derail the airline’s David-turned-Goliath rise.
“I guess it was their first incident where they lose a plane,” said Dobersberger, the travel agent. “Some people may have been waiting for that. But people forget fast, as they like to travel. And AirAsia offers a low-budget option.”Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect Monday evening’s news from the AirAsia search site in Southeast Asia.