AirAsia Flight Route Suspended as More Bodies, Wreckage Found

Indonesia suspended AirAsia Bhd. flights on the route of its crashed jetliner pending an investigation, as search teams recovered bodies still strapped in seats and large objects on the seabed suspected to be fuselage.

Four more pieces of the plane were located today, Indonesia’s search and rescue agency chief Bambang Sulistyo told reporters in Jakarta. Rain and high waves are preventing a remote operating vehicle with a camera from being sent down to identify what has been found, S.B. Supriyadi, operational director at the National Search and Rescue Agency, said in Pangkalan Bun, Indonesia.

Divers, helicopters, planes and ships are scouring the Java Sea for the remains of Flight 8501 in a search that has so far recovered 30 bodies. The navy is looking for the flight-data recorder, located in the tail section, which would help explain why a six-year-old Airbus Group NV aircraft on a routine commercial flight crashed on Dec. 28 with 162 people on board.

`No Issue'

Indonesia suspended AirAsia’s license to fly the route pending an investigation, the transport ministry said today. AirAsia Indonesia Chief Executive Officer Sunu Widyatmoko said the carrier will cooperate with the probe, according to comments made at a press conference broadcast on local television today. The company won’t issue a statement until the results of the government review are announced, he said.

“I think it’s strange that the government is suspending the Surabaya-Singapore service only now, when it’s been operating for years with no issue,” Sunardi, who was waiting for an AirAsia flight to Kuala Lumpur today, said in an interview at Surabaya’s airport. “We still don’t know what really happened.”

Like many Indonesians, Sunardi goes by only one name.

Black Box

Search teams deploying sonar and pinger locators to seek the plane’s flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders -- together known as the black box -- are being slowed by heavy seas and strong winds.

The boxes, which are encased in bright orange to facilitate their retrieval, are waterproof, fortified and designed to emit an electronic signal underwater for 30 days to help searchers find them.

Recovery efforts are focused near Pangkalan Bun, about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) southeast of Singapore. Parts of the plane were identified after sonar contact at 24 meters under water, according to Hadi Tjahjanto, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Air Force.

Of the four pieces of debris discovered, one is 18 meters (59 feet) long and 5.4 meters wide, while another measures 12.4 meters in length. The other pieces, about 30 meters underwater, are 9.4 meters long and 4.8 meters wide, and 7.2 meters in length.

Permission to Fly

AirAsia wasn’t authorized to fly from Surabaya to Singapore on Sundays, the day the accident occurred, the Indonesian transport ministry said yesterday. The company only had permission to fly between Surabaya and Singapore on four other days of the week, according to the ministry.

If AirAsia flew on a day when it wasn’t permitted, “then the onus falls not only on the airline but also on the regulator,” Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation research firm Endau Analytics, said by phone today from Johor.

Singapore had authorized AirAsia to run daily flights between Surabaya and the city-state during the winter season under a bilateral air services agreement, according to a joint statement today from Singapore’s aviation regulator and airport operator.

Possible Stall

Bad weather in the search area is expected to persist through Jan. 4, Sulistyo said at a briefing last night. The international team set 1,575 square nautical miles (5,400 square kilometers) as the most likely area to find the wreckage, Malaysian Navy Chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar said today in a Twitter post.

The fact that some of the bodies were recovered wearing seat belts suggests the plane may have suffered an aerodynamic stall rather than an in-flight breakup at high altitudes, said Robert Mann, head of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York.

Flying at 32,000 feet, the pilot asked to move to a higher altitude, citing clouds, officials have said.

An “abnormal situation occurred” at that height, said AirNav Indonesia, the nation’s air-navigation operator. Air traffic control gave the plane permission to ascend to 34,000 feet after checking flights in the area and coordinating with other airports, Bambang Tjahjono, AirNav’s head, said today.

Accidents in Asia

More than 90 vessels and aircraft have been involved in the search operation, which has so far found objects including what appears to be an emergency door and an evacuation slide.

The recovery effort will involve salvaging large pieces of the plane, engines, landing gear and other wreckage requiring heavy-duty lifting capability. The parts will then be pieced together for the investigation. Indonesia has sent a tanker to help, Sulistyo said.

Flight 8501 was the third high-profile incident involving a carrier in Asia last year, raising safety concerns in one of the world’s fastest-growing aviation markets. AirAsia is the biggest customer by units of the A320, a workhorse airliner flown by hundreds of carriers globally.

A spate of crashes in the past decade prompted Indonesia in 2008 to amend laws and boost plane-safety checks after the European Union banned its carriers from flying to Europe. The ban was later partially lifted. Indonesia had 3.77 fatal accidents for every 1 million takeoffs in the three years ended March 31, London-based aviation adviser Ascend said in 2007. The global rate was 0.25 then.

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