Indonesia has suspended the search for a missing AirAsia plane that disappeared in bad weather en route from Indonesia to Singapore, in the third crisis for a Malaysian carrier this year.
The only public indication of the grim wait for news at Changi International Airport was the dozens of media gathered outside the Relatives Holding Area on the third Floor of Terminal Two.
As relatives and friends arrived they were swiftly ushered inside, away from the prying questions of the media by airport officials.
But one woman told us she was the fiancée of a passenger who’d gone to Surabaya to see his family before coming back to Singapore to get married.
As people entered and left, cameras flashed and reporters rushed to get the very latest news.
The final update concluding a long, frustrating day came from the Changi Airport Group. A spokesman said that all the next of kin had left the holding area for the night.
Sixteen people had gone to Surabaya, from where the search was being coordinated, he said. The others had gone home or to hotels to continue the agonizing wait as the hours stretch until the search can start again at daylight.
The search halted at 5.30pm on Sunday (1030 GMT) as night fell, but would resume at 7am on Monday, or even earlier if the weather was good, Indonesian transport ministry official Hadi Mustofa said.
The Airbus A320-200, carrying 162 people, went missing after air traffic controllers lost contact with the twin-engine aircraft around an hour after it left Juanda international airport at Surabaya in East Java at 5:20am on Sunday (2220 GMT Saturday).
Shortly before disappearing, AirAsia said pilots of the plane had asked permission from Jakarta air traffic control to change course and climb above bad weather in an area noted for severe thunderstorms.
The airline, giving a revised breakdown of nationalities, said 155 of those on board Flight QZ8501 were Indonesians, with three South Koreans and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia, Britain and France.
Sixteen of those on board were children and one was an infant.
“We have focused all our strength, from the search and rescue agency, the military, police and help from the community as well as the fishermen,” rescue agency chief F.H.B. Soelistyo told a press conference.Two Indonesian air force planes and a helicopter searched the waters around the islands of Bangka and Belitung in the Java Sea, across from Kalimantan on Borneo island, with no sign of the missing plane.
He said three ships and three planes from Malaysia would join the search on Monday. Singapore had offered a C130 plane and Australia also offered help.
With hard details few and far between, panicked relatives gathered at Singapore’s Changi airport.
In Surabaya hundreds of Indonesians descended on the terminal, hoping for news.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo said his nation was “praying for the safety” of those onboard.
The aircraft was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia which dominates Southeast Asia’s booming low-cost airline market.
AirAsia said the missing jet last underwent maintenance on November 16. The company has never suffered a fatal accident.
Disastrous year for Malaysian aviation
An official from Indonesia’s transport ministry said the pilot asked to ascend by 6,000 feet to 38,000 feet to avoid heavy clouds.
“The plane is in good condition but the weather is not so good,” Djoko Murjatmodjo told a press conference at Jakarta’s airport, addressing reports of severe storms in the area where the jet went missing.
Climbing to dodge large rain clouds is a standard procedure for aircraft in these conditions.
“What happens after that is a question mark,” according to Indonesian-based aviation analyst Dudi Sudibyo.
The plane’s disappearance comes at the end of a disastrous year for Malaysian aviation.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, carrying 239 people, vanished in March after inexplicably diverting from its Kuala Lumpur-Beijing course. No trace of it has been found.
Another Malaysia Airlines plane went down in July in rebellion-torn eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 aboard. It was believed to have been hit by a surface-to-air missile.