Toronto Star

Crews seeking lost jet spot oil patches

Link to missing AirAsia flight not confirmed, but searchers are expanding their efforts


SURABAYA, INDONESIA— The pilots sought permission to climb above threatenin­g clouds. Air traffic control couldn’t say yes immediatel­y — there was no room. Six other airliners were crowding the airspace, forcing AirAsia Flight 8501to remain at a lower altitude.

Minutes later, the jet carrying 162 people was gone from the radar without ever issuing a distress signal. The plane is believed to have crashed into Indonesia’s Java Sea, but broad aerial surveys on Monday turned up no firm evidence of the missing Airbus A320-200.

Searchers spotted two oily patches and floating objects in separate locations, but it was not known whether any of it was related to the plane that vanished Sunday halfway into what should have been a two-hour hop from Surabaya to Singapore. The area is a busy shipping lane.

But officials see little reason to believe the flight met anything but a grim fate. Based on the plane’s last known co-ordinates, the aircraft probably crashed into the water and “is at the bottom of the sea,” Indonesia’s search-and-rescue chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo said.

Still, searchers planned to expand their efforts onto land on Tuesday. The BBC was reporting that Indonesia was sending teams to investigat­e smoke reported on an island in the search zone.

The last communicat­ion from the cockpit to air traffic control was a request by one of the pilots to climb from 32,000 feet (9,754 metres) to 38,000 feet (11,582 metres) owing to bad weather.

The tower was not able to immediatel­y comply as there were other planes in the same area, said Bambang Tjahjono, director of the stateowned company in charge of air traffic control.

The twin-engine plane was last seen on radar four minutes after the final communicat­ion.

Pilots rely on sophistica­ted weather radar systems that include a dashboard display of storms and clouds, as well as reports from other crews, to steer around dangerous weather.

“A lot more informatio­n is available to pilots in the cockpit about weather than it ever was,” said Deborah Hersman, former chairwoman of the U.S. National Transporta­tion Safety Board. But the technology has limits and sometimes informatio­n about storms “can be a little bit stale.”

The air search resumed Tuesday morning, with more assets and an expanded area, said Soelistyo. At least 30 ships, 15 aircraft and seven helicopter­s were looking for the jet. Most of the craft were Indonesian but Singapore, Malaysia and Australia contribute­d to the effort. Aircraft from Thailand planned to join Tuesday’s search.

“Until now, we have not yet found any signal or indication of the plane’s whereabout­s,” said Soelistyo.

He added that fishermen from Belitung island were also helping.

The U.S. navy said it had agreed to an Indonesian request for help by sending the USS Sampson, a destroyer, which will arrive in the area later Tuesday. The Pentagon said the aid could also include detection equipment deployed by air, surface and subsurface.

Jakarta’s air force base commander, Rear Marshal Dwi Putranto, said an Australian Orion aircraft had detected “suspicious” objects near an island about 160 kilometres off central Kalimantan. That’s about 1,100 kilometres from where the plane lost contact, but within Monday’s greatly expanded search area. “However, we cannot be sure whether it is part of the missing AirAsia plane,” Putranto said. “We are now moving in that direction.”

Air Force spokesman Rear Marshal Hadi Tjahnanto told MetroTV that an Indonesian helicopter spotted two oil patches in the Java Sea east of Belitung island, much closer to where the plane lost contact.

Tjahnanto said oil samples would be collected and analyzed.

The suspected crash caps an astonishin­gly tragic year for air travel in Southeast Asia, and Malaysia in particular. Malaysia-based AirAsia’s loss comes on top of the still-unexplaine­d disappeara­nce of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March with 239 people aboard, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July over Ukraine, which killed all 298 passengers and crew.

“Until today, we have never lost a life,” AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes told reporters. “But I think that any airline CEO who says he can guarantee that his airline is 100-percent safe is not accurate.”

Nearly all the passengers and crew are Indonesian­s, who are frequent visitors to Singapore, particular­ly on holidays.

Ruth Natalia Puspitasar­i, who would have turned 26 on Monday, was among them. Her father, Suyanto, sat with his wife, who was puffyeyed and coughing, near the family crisis centre at Surabaya’s airport.

“I don’t want to experience the same thing with what was happened with Malaysia Airlines,” he said as his wife wept. “It could be a long suffering.”

DAVID FICKLING Ever since an AirAsia flight went missing early Sunday with 162 people on board, chief executive officer Tony Fernandes has kept up a stream of tweets, seeking to calm anxious families and maintain a sense of optimism amid the biggest challenge the budget airline has ever faced.

“Keeping positive and staying strong,” Fernandes, 50, tweeted Monday, a day after Flight 8501 disappeare­d en route from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore. “My heart bleeds for all the relatives of my crew and our passengers. Nothing is more important to us.”

An internatio­nal team resumed the search Monday in the waters off Borneo after an all-day effort Sunday proved fruitless. The head of the Indonesian agency leading the search said Monday the assumption is that the jet is “at the bottom of the sea.”

“To all my staff, AirAsia all stars, be strong, continue to be the best,” Fernandes tweeted. “Pray hard.”

The AirAsia incident is eerily reminiscen­t of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing in March and has not been found. But even as his airline grapples with what appears to be its first major crash, Fernandes is projecting a hands-on, positive image, shuttling back and forth between Surabaya and Jakarta.

“I as your group ceo (sic) will be there through these hard times,” he tweeted Sunday evening. “We will go through this terrible ordeal together.”

That aura of approachab­ility is needed at a pivotal moment for the airline Fernandes bought for a symbolic one Malaysian ringgit (33 cents) in 2001, according to Con Korfiatis, the founding chief executive of rival budget carrier Jetstar Asia.

Fernandes, who owns England’s Queens Park Rangers soccer club, prefers casual dress to suits and is usually seen wearing a red AirAsia baseball cap. In his early days running the airline, Fernandes would even pitch in with the baggage handlers, Korfiatis said.

“He’s never been a guy to sit in an ivory tower in a $5,000 suit — he’s a man of the people,” Korfiatis, who’s now a partner with executive recruitmen­t company Heidrick & Struggles Internatio­nal Inc., said by phone from Singapore Monday. “What AirAsia is today is a reflection of him and his tenacity and spirit.”

Fernandes once worked as financial controller for Richard Branson’s Virgin Records in London, and has brought the British billionair­e’s flamboyanc­e and media savvy to a region that once was thought to be unsuitable for budget aviation.

A former British boarding-school pupil, Fernandes has parlayed the two planes and 40 million ringgit of debt he inherited when he bought AirAsia into Southeast Asia’s secondlarg­est carrier by passenger traffic.

“It’s been the Ryanair or Southwest of Asia,” said Korfiatis, referring to the Irish and U.S. discount carriers that earlier transforme­d their re- gions’ airline industries. “People were saying ‘low-cost won’t work in Asia,’ and Tony basically thumbed his nose at them.”

Like Branson, whose Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. fought for a position on routes between the U.K. and U.S., Fernandes has built AirAsia against a backdrop of dominant state-owned airlines.

Fernandes remains friends with his former boss: Branson last year donned lipstick and heels to work a route as a female flight attendant on AirAsia after losing a bet about their respective Formula One motor-racing teams, Marussia and Lotus.

Fernandes’ intuition about Asia’s appetite for budget flights has paid off: AirAsia Bhd., and its long-haul affiliate, AirAsia X Bhd., flew a combined 63.92 billion passenger-kilometres during 2013, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That gave it more traffic than Japan Airlines Co. or Thai Airways Internatio­nal PCL, and nearly 25 per cent more than state-owned rival Malaysian Airline System Bhd.

Fernandes’ prominent public per- sona should serve him well during this crisis, Laurel Papworth, a social media consultant, said by phone from Sydney. Executives who take a lower profile might find it harder to be the public face of their companies in difficult times, she said.

“The biggest fail for a CEO is if the only time they show up is when their company is in trouble,” Papworth said.

On Sunday, Fernandes took to social media just minutes after reports surfaced that the aircraft had vanished, tweeting a link to an AirAsia statement on the missing jet.

“Thank you for all your thoughts,” Fernandes posted about an hour later. “We must stay strong.”

Managing tragedies like this requires extraordin­ary tact and sensitivit­y, consultant Papworth said, and Fernandes’ ease with social networks limits the risk of a misplaced or tone-deaf comment.

Fernandes is “handling it very well; he’s doing it with a human touch, which is his persona anyway,” Korfiatis said. “What it needs right now is just him being genuine.”

 ?? DITA ALANGKARA/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? An Indonesian air force crew scans the horizon during a search operation Monday for missing AirAsia Flight 8501.
DITA ALANGKARA/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS An Indonesian air force crew scans the horizon during a search operation Monday for missing AirAsia Flight 8501.
 ?? VINCENT THIAN/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Tony Fernandes parlayed AirAsia’s two planes and extensive debt into Southeast Asia’s second-largest carrier.
VINCENT THIAN/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Tony Fernandes parlayed AirAsia’s two planes and extensive debt into Southeast Asia’s second-largest carrier.

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