Officials suspended over AirAsia crash

National Search and Rescue Agency personnel carry recovered seats from the wreckage of Air Asia flight 8501. Picture: AP
National Search and Rescue Agency personnel carry recovered seats from the wreckage of Air Asia flight 8501. Picture: AP
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HIGHLIGHTING the depth of Indonesia’s air safety problems, the transport ministry yesterday revealed stringent action against everyone who allowed AirAsia Flight 8501 to take off without proper permits – including the suspension of the airport’s operator and officials in the control tower.

The licences and schedules of all airlines flying in the country will also be examined, Djoko Murjatmodjo, director general of air transportation, said.

The crackdown comes as search teams continue to fight bad weather while combing the Java Sea for bodies and wreckage of the Airbus A320 that crashed on 28 December, killing all 162 passengers and crew on board.

The plane was travelling between Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, and Singapore on a Sunday. Officials have since said its permit for the popular route was valid only for Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and that AirAsia switched three of those days. Officials in Singapore, however, have said the plane was authorised to fly on Sundays from its end.

While the airline is being investigated, Indonesia announced on Saturday that it has banned all AirAsia flights between Surabaya and Singapore.

Mr Murjatmodjo said the ministry had issued a directive on 31 December ordering all airlines to provide pilots with up-to-date weather reports before they take off. Currently, it is up to the captain and co-pilot to research and evaluate flying conditions before departing. In other countries, the carrier’s flight operations department performs that task for them.

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Dozens of airlines emerged after Indonesia deregulated its aviation industry in the 1990s, making air travel affordable for the first time for many in the world’s fourth most populous nation. But a string of accidents in recent years has raised urgent questions about the safety of Indonesia’s booming airline sector, with experts saying poor maintenance, rule-bending and a shortage of trained professionals are partly to blame.

AirAsia, which began operations in 2001 and quickly became one of the region’s leaders in low-cost travel, has not experienced any other crashes and is widely considered a benchmark for safety and professionalism.

It is not known what caused Flight 8501 to crash into the Java Sea 42 minutes after taking off. Just before losing contact, the pilot told air traffic control that he was approaching threatening clouds but was denied permission to climb to a higher altitude because of heavy air traffic.

While it remains unclear exactly what happened, bad weather appears to have been a factor, according to a report by Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency.

So far, 37 bodies have been recovered, including three more yesterday, and sonar has identified five pieces of what is believed to be the plane on the ocean floor.

Yesterday, relatives were offered a chance to visit the site where the plane crashed into the sea.

“I will facilitate the families of the victims who want to see the scene directly and how rescuers are battling high waves and bad weather to search for their loved ones and the plane,” General Moeldoko, Indonesia’s top military commander, said.

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