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Missing AirAsia jet caps devastating year for Malaysian aviation

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AP/Tatan Syuflana

(Read caption) Members of Indonesia's Marine Police prepared to head out to sea in search for the missing AirAsia flight QZ8501, at Pangkal Pinang port in Sumatra Island, Monday, Dec. 29.

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While the search continues for the AirAsia plane that disappeared Sunday over the Java Sea, Indonesian officials say the jet carrying 162 people likely crashed into the water.

"Based on the coordinates 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," Bambang Soelistyo, the head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency, said at a news conference Monday.

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Flight 8501 lost contact with ground controllers amid storm clouds Sunday morning on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore. Why the plane, an Airbus A320-200, vanished from radar screens remains a mystery, drawing comparisons to the Malaysian jet that disappeared in March.

The New York Times reports that the bad weather, which included lightning, did not appear “insurmountable for a modern airliner.” Six other planes were near Flight 8501 when it disappeared about 42 minutes after takeoff.

The Indonesian Transportation Ministry said that just before the plane vanished, one of the pilots had asked to raise its altitude to avoid a cloud. His request was turned down because another aircraft was in the way.

An Indonesia helicopter spotted two oil spills in the water on Monday, but it has yet to be determined whether they are connected to the crash, The Associated Press reports. Meanwhile, Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia – and fishermen from the Indonesian island of Belitung – have joined in the on-going search.

"This is our biggest search operation that we have ever done,” Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kallah told reporters in Surabaya, according to the Straits Times, a Singapore-based newspaper. Mr. Kallah appealed to families of the passengers to remain patient.

The disappearance and suspected crash of Flight 8501 – which was operated by the Indonesian affiliate of AirAsia, a Malaysia-based budget carrier formed in 2001 – caps an incredibly tragic year for Malaysian aviation. As The New York Times reports:

No other aviation disasters this year come close to the Malaysian tragedies as measured by lives lost. The next deadliest crash of 2014 involved an Algerian jetliner that crashed into the desert in Mali in July, killing all 116 people on board, according to the foundation’s Aviation Safety Network.

In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean with 239 people aboard. Another Malaysia Airlines jet with 298 passengers and crew was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July.

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

But the missing plane could be even more detrimental for Indonesia. Reuters reports that the disappearance of the flight threatens the work of Indonesia’s aviation authorities, who have tried to improve the booming industry’s safety reputation in recent years.

But, despite recent improvements, the air safety record of Southeast Asia's most populous nation remains patchy.

A spate of fatal accidents in the 2000s that culminated in the crash of an Adam Air Boeing 737-400 on Jan. 1 2007, killing all 102 passengers on board, led to a blanket ban on all Indonesian-based airlines from flying to the European Union. …

"Indonesia has had a questionable safety record. This will once again raise questions about how safe Indonesian airlines are," said Greg Waldron, Asia Managing Editor at Flightglobal, an industry data and news service.