In Pangkalan Bun, Indonesia, bodies retrieved from the AirAsia plane crash are taken to an aircraft heading for Surabaya on Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015. Zuma Press

By Made Sentana and Ben Otto
The Wall Street Journal

AirAsia didn’t have permission to fly from Surabaya to Singapore on the Sunday morning that Flight 8501 crashed into the Java Sea, Indonesian officials said Saturday.

The development came as Indonesia’s search-and-rescue agency said it had discovered four large pieces of the plane on the floor of the Java Sea. Because of that discovery, the search area was narrowed on Sunday and divers were able to enter the water to look at what was found, an Indonesian search-and-rescue official said. He added that weather in the search area has improved and that vessels equipped with sound-detection equipment are combing the area in the hope of detecting pings from the plane’s “black box” data recorders.Transport Ministry spokesman J.A. Barata said the airline was only permitted to fly the route on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

“So AirAsia has committed a violation of the route that has been given to them,” Mr. Barata told The Wall Street Journal. He said the company’s flights from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, to Singapore had consequently been suspended on Friday.

AirAsia used to have permission to fly the route daily, but the number of slots was cut for the period Oct. 26 to March 28 because the country was nearing its quota for flying people to Singapore, said Indonesia’s acting director general of aviation, Djoko Murjatmodjo. He didn’t say if other airlines also had their slots reduced.

Mr. Murjatmodjo added that AirAsia had been flying the route on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays rather than the four days designated by the Transportation Ministry. He said the ministry is investigating why AirAsia was flying the route outside its permitted schedule. The probe will include an investigation of the ministry.

“Frankly speaking, it’s a bit late for us to find out about this,” he said. “One thing that’s certain is the days that they are flying aren’t the same as the days they were given. There was no request for changes.”

At a news conference in Surabaya on Saturday, AirAsia Indonesia’s chief executive, Sunu Widyatmoko, said the company would cooperate fully with the government investigation. He said the management of AirAsia won’t comment further until the investigation is complete.

Mr. Barata said the investigation will also cover other airlines.

Frankly speaking, it’s a bit late for us to find out about this.

—Djoko Murjatmodjo

The head of Indonesia’s search-and-rescue agency, Bambang Soelistyo, said Saturday that four pieces of the plane had been found relatively close together on the sea floor, with the largest measuring about 18 meters in length. The agency released sonar images of the objects taken at distances of about 35 meters to 60 meters.

Mr. Soelistyo said ping detectors, designed to detect the plane’s black boxes, would be deployed in the area Sunday. He said better weather forecast for Sunday would likely aid investigation and recovery efforts, and that divers were standing by on boats near the wreckage.

The Airbus A320, which had 162 people on board, lost contact with air traffic control early Sunday morning midway between Surabaya and Singapore.

After two pieces of the plane were discovered, Mr. Soelistyo said, “With the oil slick that we found and the discovery of the two big objects, I can confirm that this is the big part of the AirAsia plane we have been looking for all this time,” adding that a remotely operated vehicle would be sent to take pictures of the objects, though rough weather is hampering the deployment.

Some bodies have been recovered from the Java Sea and a handful of burials and memorial services have taken place, but the majority of passengers and crew are still unaccounted for as rough weather has slowed the search and recovery process.

Anton Castilani, the director of Indonesia’s Disaster Victims Identification unit, said investigators will conduct autopsies on the crew but not on most passengers. The majority of them were Indonesian and written consent must be obtained from relatives for an autopsy to take place, or the police must open a criminal investigation, which they haven’t done, Dr. Castilani said.

“There are cultural issues. People refuse to allow autopsies,” he said.

Autopsies on bodies of air crash victims can help investigators piece together what happened to a flight. For example, if most passengers drowned, it would indicate that the aircraft wasn’t destroyed midair and that people died trying to escape.

One autopsy has been carried out, DVI officials said, without revealing the name of the deceased or cause of death.

People refuse to allow autopsies.

—Anton Castilani

Mr. Soelistyo said Friday evening that a total of 30 bodies had been recovered. Earlier Friday, searchers brought the bodies of 10 victims to shore. Following a ceremonial military send-off, they were flown to Surabaya.

The bodies were placed in white coffins with a bouquet of flowers on top. Each coffin had a sign bearing the recovery number of the body inside, 009 through 018. The coffins were brought by ambulance to the airport. Then, each was carried by eight men in military formation to a waiting Indonesian Air Force airplane.

U.S. Navy vessels are involved in the search operation, with the USS Fort Worth joining the USS Sampson in the hunt for wreckage on Saturday. Twenty-two Russian divers, a small submarine and a Beriev Be-200 amphibious aircraft also arrived on Saturday, said Alexander Shilin, the country’s deputy ambassador to Indonesia.

“This is the most sophisticated equipment that can search both the surface of the water and the bottom of the sea,” Mr. Shilin said of the Beriev Be-200.

The USS Sampson has recovered at least a dozen bodies since it joined the search operation on Monday. The bodies were among those sent by helicopter to Pangkalan Bun on Friday.

Lt. Lauren Cole, deputy public affairs officer for the 7th Fleet, said that weather conditions in the area where the USS Sampson has been operating have hampered operations but the ship’s two Romeo search-and-rescue helicopters have been able to operate daily.



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