(CNN) — An AirAsia passenger jet carrying 162 people lost contact with Indonesian air traffic control early Sunday, gripping Southeast Asia with a second missing plane crisis in less than a year.
The search operation for the missing AirAsia Flight QZ8501 has been halted for the night, but big ships won’t return to shore and will leave their searchlights on, according to the Indonesian Transportation Ministry.
Before communication was lost, one of the pilots asked to fly at a higher altitude because of bad weather, officials said.
The aircraft, flying from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore, went missing as it flew at 38,000 feet over the Java Sea between the islands of Belitung and Borneo — a heavily traveled shipping channel with shallow waters, according to Indonesian authorities, who are leading the search and rescue operations.
AirAsia says it lost contact with the aircraft at 7:24 local time.
Of the people on board the Airbus A320-200, 155 are Indonesian, three are South Korean, one is British, one is French, one is Malaysian and one is Singaporean, the airline said.
Eighteen children, including one infant, are among the passengers, the carrier said. Seven of the people on board are crew members.
At the airport in Surabaya, loved ones gathered and wept as they waited for any word on the passengers.
Some took cell phone pictures of a flight manifest posted on a wall. The black-and-white papers showed every passenger’s name and seat number, but not their fate.
Others simply sat and dabbed tears from their eyes.
“Our concern right now is for the the relatives and the next of kin,” AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes said during a press conference in Surabaya. He confirmed that storm clouds caused the pilot to ask for a change in flight plan, but added, “We don’t want to speculate whether weather was a factor. We really don’t know.” Once the aircraft is found, there will be a proper investigation, Fernandes said.
As word spread of the missing plane, the airline changed the color of its logo on its website and social media accounts from red to gray.
Pope Francis prayed for the missing, according to Vatican Radio.
Heavy thunderstorms in area
Flight 8501 “was requesting deviation due to en route weather before communication with the aircraft was lost,” the airline said.
The flight’s captain asked permission to climb to a higher altitude, Murdjatmojo said, according to the national news agency.
According to flight tracking websites, almost the entire flight path of the plane was over the sea.
CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo said that if there was an onboard emergency, the pilots should have issued a mayday call or a pan-pan call.
“Mayday means you’re immediately in danger of losing the flight; pan-pan means that it is urgent but that you can continue the flight and request an alternate route or an alternate airport,” said Schiavo, a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“It’s disconcerting in that the standard procedures for an emergency don’t seem to have been deployed,” she said.
The Malaysian government said it had deployed three vessels and three aircraft to help Indonesian authorities in the search for the plane. Singapore said it had activated its rescue and aviation agencies. Australia and India said said they had also offered assistance.
‘Very good’ safety reputation
AirAsia is a Malaysia-based airline that is popular in the region as a budget carrier. It has about 100 destinations, with affiliate companies in several Asian countries.
The missing plane is operated by AirAsia’s Indonesian affiliate, in which the Malaysian company holds a 48.9% stake, according to its website.
AirAsia has a “very good” reputation for safety, CNN aviation correspondent Richard Quest said.
Flight 8501’s captain has a total of 20,537 flying hours, with 6,100 of them with AirAsia Indonesia on the Airbus A320, the airline said. The first officer has a total of 2,275 flying hours, AirAsia said. The plane’s last scheduled maintenance was on November 16, it said.
The French Foreign Ministry said the first officer is the French citizen who is on the plane. A state-run company in Indonesia that manages airports identified the first officer as Remi Emmanuel Plesel.
Airbus said the plane had “accumulated approximately 23,000 flight hours in some 13,600 flights.” The aircraft manufacturer said it would provide full assistance to authorities in charge of investigating the missing plane.
The loss of contact with the AirAsia plane comes nearly 10 months after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which dropped off radar over Southeast Asia on March 8 with 239 people on board.
The Malaysia Airlines plane, a Boeing 777-200ER, lost contact with air traffic control over the South China Sea between Malaysia and Vietnam.
Searchers have yet to find any debris from Flight 370, which officials believe crashed in the southern Indian Ocean after veering dramatically off course.
But some aviation experts don’t think the search for Flight 8501 will be as grueling as the search for MH370.
“We are not talking about the deep Indian Ocean here,” Quest said. “We are talking about congested airspace around Southeast Asia. There will be much better radar coverage. There’s certainly better air traffic control coverage.”