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Malaysian Aircraft Missing With 162 Onboard

Singapore. In what could possibly be a third disaster to strike the Malaysian aviation industry within 2014, a third airliner belonging to AirAsia disappeared from radars December 28 while on a flight here from Surabaya in Indonesia.

There was no confirmed report however for several hours as to what had or could have happened to the Airbus 320-200 that took off for the two-hour AirAsia Flight 8501 at 5.20 am for a scheduled landing at Singapore’s Changhi airport at 8.30 am (Time difference is 1 hour) and went missing after about 42 minutes in air over the Java Sea. There was bad weather over the region, and the aircraft’s First Officer – co-pilot – had requested deviation from the planned flight path to circumvent thunderstorms.

The aircraft, with 155 passengers, two pilots and five cabin crew, was reportedly flying at an altitude of 32,000 feet in turbulent equatorial weather but on the common route followed by all airliners. The pilot wanted to go up to 38,000 feet to avoid turbulence just before the communications were lost. Most of those onboard were Indonesians, and included three South Koreans, one French, one Malaysian and one Singaporean. The passengers included 16 children and one infant.

Notably, in December and January around this time, there are severe and high thunderstorms in the region but pilots are trained to avoid them. There can still be very difficult situations though, like two thunderstorms close to each other making the situation for an aircraft very, very difficult. Or icing on the wings which can affect controls of the otherwise very advanced fly-by-wire aircraft.

Air Force and naval authorities from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and regional aviation authorities from several countries were coordinating their search and rescue efforts and had deployed aircraft and ships over the suspected area of a possible crash. A crash is suspected unfortunately as soon after the pilot’s communication with the ground control is suddenly lost. The Singapore Air Force has pressed its C-130 Hercules aircraft for the search.

The Indian Navy alerted its ships and aircraft based in the Andaman & Nicobar islands, not far away from the area of mishap.

The area has heavy shipping and aerial traffic and commercial ships there have also been requested to look for any sign or debris of the aircraft to help in the air-sea search. The possibility of the aircraft landing on one of the many islands in the region has not been given up.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak confirmed the plane went off the radar 42 minutes after takeoff.

Air Asia, known as one of the most successful low-cost carriers globally, is owned and controlled by Tony Fernandez, an Indian origin investor based in Malaysia. He tweeted “Thanks” for support in this difficult time and asked for everyone to be strong.

It may be recalled that on March 3 this year, a Boeing 777-200ER of the Malaysian Airlines with 239 persons onboard had just disappeared while on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and no trace has been found yet even after 10 months. Indications are though that this aircraft took an unusual route, away from the scheduled flight path and possibly went down in the southern Indian Ocean. Unusually, and mysteriously, the communication systems of MH370, including transponders to indicate its position as it moved, were manually switched off.

A second aircraft of the same airline, another Boeing 777-200ER, was shot down July 17 over Ukraine while on way home from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport with 298 people on board.

The third accident, from airlines from the same country – Malaysia – is bound to be very painful for the Government, people and aviation industry of the country.

According to reports from airport authorities, in the case of the AirAsia Airbus 320-200, all communications were intact as the pilots were in regular touch with various air traffic control towers, and appropriately received and gave weather reports.

There is always some bad weather over the equatorial seas but aircraft takeoff and land without much problems and ships move away from possible storms as soon as indications are detected. Both the aircraft’s pilots are – hopefully not were – experienced and the aircraft itself has sophisticated avionics to detect turbulence with backup redundancy. Continuous weather forecasts are also available to pilots.

As the flight was planned for two hours, there should have been sufficient fuel to last it at least for three hours. If the aircraft has indeed crashed, what really happened can only be ascertained after its Black Box (actually red in colour) is discovered and cockpit and aircraft movement recordings are decoded.

Angry and upset relatives of the passengers were at airline counters in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia demanding information. The airline put up helpline numbers to assist them. However, the airline arrival and departure boards at Changhi airport only showed “Delayed” on display screens against the aircraft’s expected time of arrival (ETA). To the relatives, it was a meaningless piece of information from perhaps an equally helpless management of the airline.

The Kuala Lumpur-based airline has hubs in Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand and India (Bangalore’s Kempegowda International Airport). AirAsia has an excellent flight safety record and flies some 50 million passengers annually.

AirAsia was set up in 1994 with Malaysian Government support but went into extreme losses. Tony Fernandez, a former Time Warner executive, actually turned the airline around from losses, after acquiring it for a token sum of less than USD 1 (repeat one) in 2001, and made it one of the world’s best low-cost carriers. The turnaround time for an AirAsia plane is just 25 minutes, and an aircraft is actually up in the air, generating revenue, for an average 13 hours a day.

© India Strategic