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AirAsia plane search goes on

Aircraft crews searching for the missing AirAsia jetliner have seen oily spots and objects in the sea, but officials say it is too early to know whether either was connected to the plane and its 162 passengers and crew.

An Indonesian helicopter saw two oily spots in the water and an Australian search plane spotted objects elsewhere in the Java Sea, and officials see little reason to believe it met anything but a grim fate after it disappeared from radar.

The Airbus A320-200 vanished in air space thick with storm clouds on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore.

Wary of bad weather, one of the pilots of AirAsia Flight 8501 had asked to raise the plane's altitude just before it vanished, but was not allowed because another aircraft was in the way.

Indonesia search and rescue chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo said: "Based on the co-ordinates that we know, the evaluation would be that any estimated crash position is in the sea, and that the hypothesis is the plane is at the bottom of the sea."

Jakarta's air force base commander, Rear Marshal Dwi Putranto, said an Australian Orion aircraft detected "suspicious" objects near Nangka island, about 100 miles off central Kalimantan, about 700 miles from where the plane lost contact, but within the greatly expanded search area.

"We cannot be sure whether it is part of the missing AirAsia plane," Mr Putranto said. "We are now moving in that direction, which is in cloudy conditions."

Air force spokesman Rear Marshal Hadi Tjahnanto told MetroTV that an Indonesian helicopter spotted two oily spots in the Java Sea east of Belitung island, much closer to where the plane lost contact than the objects viewed from the Australian plane. He said oil samples would be collected and analysed to see if they are connected to the missing plane.

The last communication from the cockpit to air traffic control was a request by one of the pilots to increase altitude from 32,000ft to 38,000ft because of the rough weather. Air traffic control was not able to immediately grant the request because another plane was in the air space, said Bambang Tjahjono, director of the state-owned company in charge of air traffic control.

By the time clearance could be given, Flight 8501 had disappeared, Mr Tjahjono said. The twin-engine, single-aisle plane, which never sent a distress signal, was last seen on radar four minutes after the final communication from the cockpit.

First Admiral Sigit Setiayana, the Naval Aviation Centre commander at Surabaya air force base, said 12 navy ships, five planes, three helicopters and a number of warships were taking part in the search, along with ships and planes from Singapore and Malaysia. The Australian air force also sent a search plane.

Many fishermen from Belitung island have joined in the search, and all vessels in that area of the sea have been alerted to be on the lookout for anything that could be linked to the plane.

The plane's disappearance caps a tragic year for air travel in south-east 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," said AirAsia group chief executive Tony Fernandes, who founded the low-cost carrier in 2001. "But I think that any airline CEO who says he can guarantee that his airline is 100% safe is not accurate."

He refused to address compensation issues or any changes that may be made to the airline as a result of the incident.

"We have carried 220 million people up to this point," he said. "Of course, there's going to be some reaction, but we are confident in our ability to fly people, and we'll continue to be strong and continue to carry people who never could fly before."

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

Flight 8501 took off on Sunday morning from Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, and was about halfway to Singapore when it vanished from radar over a heavily travelled sea that is about 30 meters deep on average. The jet had been airborne for about 42 minutes.

The plane had an Indonesian captain, a French co-pilot, five cabin crew members and 155 passengers, including 16 children and one infant, the airline said in a statement.

AirAsia said the captain had more than 20,000 flying hours, of which 6,100 were with AirAsia on the Airbus 320. The first officer had 2,275 flying hours.

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