Jakarta/Singapore: An AirAsia plane with 162 people aboard went missing en route from Indonesia to Singapore today after pilots requested a change of flight plan due to bad weather, triggering a massive search in the third major incident this year involving a Malaysian carrier.
AirAsia Flight QZ8501 with 155 people on board -- including one British, one Malaysian, one Singaporean, three South Koreans, 149 Indonesians -- and seven crew members -- six Indonesians and a French co-pilot -- lost contact with air traffic control at 0724 local time Indonesia (0454 IST). There were no Indian nationals on board.
A massive search operation launched to locate the Airbus A320-200 with two Indonesian military aircraft and a chopper scouring the seas was called off for the day due to bad weather and darkness, 11 hours after the plane disappeared, and will be resumed tomorrow morning, officials said.
Contact with the plane, which took off from Surabaya (Indonesia) at 5:20 am local time and was scheduled to land at Singapore's Changi Airport at 8:30 am, was lost 42 minutes after takeoff.
Sixteen children and one infant were among the passengers on board the plane with the registration number PK-AXC.
Indonesian officials earlier said the plane was several hours past the time when its fuel would have been exhausted.
There were unconfirmed media reports that a aircraft crashed in the waters of East Belitung, off the east coast of Sumatra. The exact location of the crash site has not been identified, media reports said.
However, Malaysia's Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai dismissed the claims that wreckage of the aircraft had been found. Asked about reports that the missing flight has crashed in Belintung, Liow confirmed the reports to be false.
"There is plenty of speculation that they have found the plane. At this point in time that is not true. We are still looking for the plane," Liow said.
A statement on AirAsia's Facebook page said: "AirAsia Indonesia regrets to confirm that flight QZ8501 from Surabaya to Singapore has lost contact with air traffic control at 0724 hrs this morning."
Indonesian Transport Ministry official Hadi Mustofa said the plane had asked for an unusual route before it lost contact.
Air Asia said the pilots requested "deviation due to enroute weather before communication with the aircraft was lost while it was still under the control of the Indonesian Air Traffic Control."
The Indonesia air transportation director said the pilot requested to increase altitude to 38,000 feet from 32,000 feet to "avoid clouds." Thunderstorms were reported in the area with clouds up to 50,000 feet, Indonesian officials said.
The jet was flying at the regular cruising altitude for most jetliners -- 32,000 feet -- when the signal was lost, according to flight tracking website Flightradar24. No distress reports came from the plane, officials said.
"At the present time, we unfortunately have no further information regarding the status of the passengers and crew members on board, but we will keep all parties informed as more information becomes available," the Malaysia-based carrier said.
AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes asked his company to stay strong. "Thank you for all your thoughts and prayers. We must stay strong," tweeted Fernandes, an ethnic Indian, who set up the budget airlines which now flies to several countries.
"This is my worst nightmare, but there is no stopping," he said, adding that he is headed to Indonesia.
The last detected position of the missing AirAsia flight is believed to be between Tanjung Pandan on Belitung island and?Kalimantan, Indonesia, according to Indonesia's Director of Air Transport, Djoko Murjatmodjo.
"The position where contact was lost was between Tanjung Pandan and Pontianak, about 100 nautical miles south-east of Tanjung Pandan," said Djoko.
Two Indonesian air force planes and a helicopter scoured the seas around the islands of Bangka and Belitung in the Java Sea, across from Kalimantan on Borneo island.
"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 reporters.
He said three ships and three planes from Malaysia would join the search tomorrow. Singapore had offered a C130 plane and Australia also offered help.
India has put on standby three ships and a maritime surveillance aircraft for assistance in the search operation.
The aircraft was operated by AirAsia Indonesia.
Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) Bangka Belitung said it dispatched one vessel to search for the AirAsia flight.
The pilot of the plane Captain Iriyanto has an experience of 6,100 flying hours.
The loss of contact with the AirAsia plane comes nearly 10 months after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 carrying 239 people, including five Indians, that went missing on March 8.
Searchers are yet to find any debris from Flight MH370, which officials believe crashed in the southern Indian Ocean.
Another Malaysia Airlines plane MH17 was shot down over Ukraine in July, killing all 298 on board.
AirAsia is popular in the region as a budget carrier. It has about 100 destinations, with subsidiaries in several Asian countries.