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Search for plane with 162 people on board called off for the night

AirAsia Indonesia flight QZ8501 lost contact with air traffic controllers over the Java Sea.

Updated 12.57 pm

A relative of Air Asia flight QZ8501 passengers weep as she waits for the latest news on the missing jetliner at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java. Source: AP/Press Association Images

RESCUERS SCOURING THE Java Sea for a missing AirAsia plane carrying 162 people have halted their search for night.

Flight QZ8501 went missing in bad weather en route from Indonesia to Singapore.

Around 13 hours after it disappeared, Indonesian air force jets hadn’t found any signs of the Airbus A320-200, with dusk fast approaching and fuel running low.

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 (2220 GMT Saturday).

Shortly before disappearing, AirAsia said the plane had asked permission from Jakarta air traffic control to deviate from its flight plan and climb above bad weather in an area noted for severe thunderstorms.

The Malaysian carrier says that said 149 of those on board Flight QZ8501 were Indonesians, with three South Koreans and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom.

The crew is made up of one person from France and six Indonesians. It is believed that 16 of the passengers are children.

Source: AP/Press Association Images

Two Indonesia air force planes and a helicopter were searching the waters around the islands of Bangka and Belitung in the Java Sea, near Kalimanten island.

“We have not been able to visually detect any signs,” according to air force spokesman Hadi Cahyanto, adding search boats were still on their way to the area, around halfway along the missing aircraft’s expected flight path.

“The weather is quite good. However, we only have a few hours more to go as our fuel will run out. By then it will also get dark… the planes will have to return to Jakarta.”

A Singaporean C-130 military transport aircraft was also deployed, after Indonesia accepted help from its Southeast Asian neighbour, while Malaysia said it had committed “military assets” to the search.

Anxiety builds 

The aircraft was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia which dominates Southeast Asia’s booming low-cost airline market.

AirAsia’s flamboyant boss Tony Fernandes, a former record industry executive who acquired the then-failing airline in 2001, said he was on his way to Surabaya, where most of the passengers are from.

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 of the missing jet.

A 45-year-old woman told AFP that she had six family members on the plane.

“They were going to Singapore for a holiday,” she said.”They have always flown with AirAsia and there was no problem. I am very worried that the plane might have crashed.”

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo said his nation was “praying for the safety” of those onboard.

His country, a vast archipelago with poor land transport infrastructure, has seen an explosive growth in low-cost air travel over recent years.

But the air industry has been blighted by poor safety standards in an area that also experiences extreme weather.

Singapore Indonesia Plane Louise Sidharta from Indonesia, whose fiance was on board the AirAsia flight, arrives at a holding area for relatives and next-of-kin of passengers on at the Changi International Airport in Singapore. Source: Wong Maye-E

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.

PastedImage-57144 Source: Facebook/AirAsia

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed there had been no reports of any Irish citizens on board the missing AirAsia flight.

The Department is monitoring developments via its embassy in Jakarta.

© – AFP 2014 with reporting by Ronan Duffy and Daragh Brophy.

Read: MH370 could be declared “lost” – meaning the search would be over >

Read: As family sues over MH370, Malaysia Airlines must prove it wasn’t to blame >

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