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Asia300

Bad weather seen behind missing AirAsia plane

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An Airbus 320-200, the same model as the missing plane.   © Reuters

JAKARTA/SINGAPORE -- Inclement weather likely caused the disappearance of an AirAsia flight that departed Sunday morning from the Indonesian city of Surabaya for Singapore.

     The captain of AirAsia Indonesia Flight QZ8501 last communicated with air traffic control at 6:12 a.m. local time, wanting to climb to an altitude of 38,000 feet from 32,000 feet to avoid clouds. Cumulonimbus clouds, which cause heavy rain and thunderstorms, were as high as 45,000 feet at the time.

     The plane was visible on radar until 6:16 a.m. but had disappeared as of 6:18. The trip between Surabaya and Singapore usually takes slightly more than two hours. The plane had enough fuel to fly just over four hours, according to the transport ministry.

     Bad weather in this area often leads to flight course changes. There was no indication of a terrorist attack or a hijacking.

     The Indonesian military, police and rescue authorities launched a search operation Sunday, dispatching seven aircraft. But the mission was suspended for the day at around 6 p.m. because of poor visibility.

     With Singapore, Malaysia and Australia stepping forward to offer support, a joint search will begin Monday, initially for seven days and longer as needed.

     AirAsia Chief Executive Officer Tony Fernandes told a news conference in Surabaya on Sunday night that "this is a massive shock to us."

     "We don't want to speculate" on what happened, he said, stressing that taking care of family members is the foremost focus and that the airline will check all processes involved in the operation of the aircraft.

     AirAsia had increased its fleet's frequency of operation to cut costs, but such moves had never led to a fatality.

     The airline says that the plane underwent a routine inspection Nov. 16 and that the captain had 6,100 hours of flight experience with AirAsia Indonesia on the model in question, the Airbus A320. Airbus said it delivered the plane in October 2008.

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