It’s been a rough year for Kuala Lumpur-based airlines, but AirAsia’s response to the loss of an airliner over the Java Sea has been miles ahead of Malaysia Airlines.
AirAsia Flight QZ8501, which disappeared Sunday over the Java Sea as it flew from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore with 162 people on board, is likely at the bottom of the sea, the head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency told reporters Monday. The official, Bambang Soelistyo, said at a press conference that, “Based on the coordinates given to us and evaluation that the estimated crash position is in the sea, the hypothesis is, the plane is at the bottom of the sea.”His comments came as authorities resumed an extensive search and rescue operation Monday morning local time after darkness and bad weather forced its suspension overnight. Distraught relatives rushed to airports for news about the missing aircraft, an Airbus A320-200 carrying seven crewmembers and 155 passengers, including 16 children and one infant—all presumed lost.
Soelistyo said Indonesia doesn’t possess “the tools” to retrieve a plane from the seabed, adding that the country is seeking help from nations that do have the necessary equipment, such as submersible vehicles. “I have coordinated with our foreign minister so we will borrow from other countries which have offered,” he said. He cited Britain, the United States and France as possible lenders.
Singapore and Indonesia authorities had searched the heavily trafficked patch of ocean between Indonesia, Borneo, and Southeast Asia, as well as mountainous parts of the area where the plane dropped off the radar, before darkness and bad weather forced them to suspend operations Sunday night local time. Britain, South Korea, and Australia have offered to help in the search and in any investigation, Malaysian officials said. Kuala Lumpur said it was sending vessels and a C-130 aircraft; Singapore also provided a C-130, and Australia said it had a P3 Orion aircraft on standby.
Air traffic control in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, lost contact with the Airbus plane around 7:30 a.m. Sunday local time near Belitung Island—about halfway between Surabaya and Singapore—authorities said. It was supposed to land in Singapore at 8:57 a.m. local time. The pilot had earlier called air traffic control reporting heavy clouds and asked to move up to 38,000 feet from 32,000 feet. Some thunderstorms were in the area, according to weather reports. On board were 149 Indonesians, three South Koreans, one Singaporean, a Malaysian, and one Briton, the airline said. The pilot is French and the other crewmembers Indonesian.
Speaking at a news conference, Joko Muryo Atmodjo on Sunday, an Indonesian transport ministry official, said no distress signal had been received from the plane. “Hopefully we can find the location of the plane as soon as possible,” he said, adding, “What I need to emphasize is until now, we have not found out how the plane fell or what kind of emergency it was.”
Dozens of tearful family members huddled at the Surabaya and Singapore airports, anxiously awaiting news of loved ones. The scenes had an eerie—and depressing—familiarity, immediately evoking images from nine months ago, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished from the radar with 239 people on board over the south Indian Ocean. That plane still has not been found, sparking much speculation and many conspiracy theories.
“For many people that is the only way we can fly because it’s affordable.”
The latest disappearance is another huge aviation blow for Malaysia, where both Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia are based. The two carriers are headquartered in Kuala Lumpur but have vastly different profiles and operating philosophies. The difference was emphasized immediately after QZ8501 went missing. In marked contrast to theshambling and sometimes contradictory performance of Malaysia Airlines officials when MH370 apparently fell out of the sky, AirAsia released the news—after an initial, unexplained delay—providing as much information as it had available. AirAsia’s website has a large headline at the top right, “Updates on AirAsia flight QZ8501,” with the flight number in larger type. A click sends a user to a statement, a list of passenger nationalities, emergency call center numbers, and other information.
Malaysia Airlines, or MAS, is a major carrier and the nation’s flag carrier, and it owns two subsidiary airlines. It had a relatively low profile until the March 8, 2014 disaster in which MH370, a flight borne on a Boeing 777, disappeared from sight, a calamity that later compounded by the apparent shoot-down over Ukraine of the airline’s Flight MH17 in July. For years, the carrier was 70 percent owned by the Malaysian government, but after the twin catastrophes, the government announced it was taking full control of the company.
AirAsia, on the other hand, is a relatively new carrier, an upstart in the tradition of Southwest Airlines in the United States. Launched just 13 years ago, it quickly became a serious rival to MAS and a rising juggernaut in Asia. Riffing off the slogan “Now Everyone Can Fly,” the carrier offered no-frills flights that were both cheap and plentiful. Its bright red-and-white aircraft, which look like giant Coca-Cola cans with wings, quickly became ubiquitous, and soon there was a proliferaton of subsidiaries including Thai AirAsia, Indonesia AirAsia, Philippines AirAsia, AirAsia India, AirAsia Zest, and AirAsia X, which focuses on long-haul routes.
“Mostly people on a budget use it,” Franz Dobersberger, managing director of a Bangkok travel agency, told The Daily Beast. “It is very popular in Southeast Asia and has had massive growth.”
The carrier indeed appeals to those who don’t have a lot of money, notably backpackers and students as well as the thousands of tourists from China, whose burgeoning prosperity has single-handedly created its own market in the travel industry.
“They somehow offer ridiculously cheap flights throughout the ASEAN region,” said Devandy Ario Putro, 21, a recent university graduate from Jakarta who has flown the carrier almost 10 times, including to Bangkok. “For many people that is the only way we can fly because it’s affordable. And it’s pretty efficient. The service is reasonably good, although it’s a low-cost airline, and the cabin crews are nice.”
And AirAsia is convenient, and can be booked on short notice: “It was the only airline available from Perth when all the other flights to Bali were full,” says Christian Ford, a 39-year-old Australian landscaper. “It was the one that saved me so I could have Christmas in Bali.”
The feisty airline is the brainchild of entrepreneur Tony Fernandes, a Malaysian of Indian descent who also is a British citizen. Fernandes introduced his no-frills approach to Malaysians, mortgaging his home and using his personal savings in 2001 to buy AirAsia, which was then a heavily indebted arm of a government-owned conglomerate. Two years later, the savvy London School of Economics graduate persuaded then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to push for open skies agreements with neighboring countries and his brash, nimble airline was on its way.
Fernandes has been dubbed the Asian version of Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson. It is an apt comparison given Fernandes’s iconoclastic operational tactics and ability to undercut legacy carriers—as well as the fact that he was once financial controller for Branson’s Virgin Records group. Fernandes pushed AirAsia from its Southeast Asia aviation theater to more than 80 destinations worldwide, including to places such as Tokyo, London, United Arab Emirates, China, and France. Forbes estimates his wealth at $650 million.
Fernandes said at a press briefing that the company is “devastated by what happened” and expressed his great concern for next of kin. “We hope that the aircraft is found quickly, and we can find out the cause of what has happened,” he said.
Whatever does happen with Flight QZ8501, few expect the incident to flummox Fernandes or derail the airline’s David-turned-Goliath rise.
“I guess it was their first incident where they lose a plane,” said Dobersberger, the travel agent. “Some people may have been waiting for that. But people forget fast, as they like to travel. And AirAsia offers a low-budget option.”