The disappearance of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 from Surabaya in Indonesia to Singapore, with 155 people on board, is the third major aviation tragedy to strike South East Asia in the past year. The event follows the Malaysia Airlines jet, Flight 370 that disappeared in March and Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Flight 8501 was operated by the Indonesian affiliate of AirAsia, a regional budget carrier based in Malaysia. Although speculation has begun over its mysterious disappearance after the plane lost contact with air traffic control 42 minutes after takeoff, connections with earlier tragedies appears to be nothing more than a terrible coincidence. Officials at the Indonesia air transportation director said that the pilot requested to increase altitude to 38,000 feet from 32,000 feet to ‘avoid clouds’, as thunderstorms were reported in the area. Although search teams from four countries had joined the search for the jet in the Java Sea, nothing concrete has been found yet. Hopes of recovering any survivors have dimmed rapidly, with the head of the National Search and Rescue Agency in Indonesia, saying that the aircraft was probably ‘at the bottom of the sea’. Dozens of tearful family members have huddled at the Surabaya and Singapore airports, anxiously awaiting news of loved ones. Scenes relayed from both airports by various international media outlets world over had an eerie sense of familiarity, immediately evoking images from nine months ago, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished over the Indian Ocean.
Although Sunday’s disappearance is yet another blot on Indonesia’s aviation safety record, it may not necessarily be a reflection of a systemic failure at Air Asia. The leading Asian budget carrier had carried close to 250 million passengers since its inception a decade ago, without a fatal accident. Most aviation experts have posited that bad weather played a significant role in its disappearance, similar to the Air France flight over the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. With instruments seeming to malfunction due to foul weather, pilots aboard Air France had failed to recognise that the aircraft was in no position to fly. However, in light of the theory that has held most weight since its unfortunate disappearance; a renewed debate has emerged whether pilots have access to sufficient data to warn them of weather-related mishaps. Data experts in the field of weather forecasting have suggested that there is more technology and automated alerting on some smartphone apps than on planes. They’ve gone to further suggest that aircrafts world over reportedly lack the requisite technology that pilots need to help keep the plane they are flying out of harm’s way. Let’s hope that other airlines have read the warning signs.