Indonesian authorities are searching for a 26-year-old Boeing Co. jet with 62 people on board that lost radio contact shortly after taking off from the capital Jakarta, pushing the nation’s aviation industry into crisis mode once again.
The country’s search agency has picked up some debris in the Java Sea and is trying to confirm it belongs to the Sriwijaya Air Flight SJ182, the organization’s deputy for operations, Bambang Suryo Aji, said at a press briefing Saturday evening.
Heavy rain in Jakarta had delayed the takeoff for the 90-minute trip to Pontianak on the island of Borneo. Shortly after departure, the plane plunged from 10,900 feet to 250 feet, according to FlightRadar24, a website that monitors aircraft movements. The jet is a 737-500 model that’s much older than the Max 737 aircraft that was grounded globally for about two years in 2019 after two fatal crashes.
“This is not even the model before the Max, it has been in service for 30 years so it’s unlikely to be a design fault,” Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at Teal Group Corp. said by phone. “Thousands of these planes have been built and production ended over 20 years ago, so something would have been discovered by now.”
The Southeast Asian nation has had a spate of plane crashes in the past decade, including the Lion Air Flight 610 disaster that killed 189 people in 2018, the first of the two 737 Max crashes that eventually led to its global grounding. In December 2014, an AirAsia Group Bhd. plane plunged into the Java Sea with 162 people on board. Weather has been a contributing factor in several of the crashes.
“While we don’t know anything else about the cause of this crash, the biggest thing concerning me is serious concerns about Indonesian air safety standards that were identified by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and others years ago,” Aboulafia said. “I am not completely certain that the proper procedures have been put in place.”
The jet’s disappearance comes as the aviation industry is reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which brought air travel to its knees. Covid-19 tore through in a tumultuous, unprecedented way — leaving carriers in a deep hole, along with a constellation of aerospace manufacturers, airports and leasing firms. The International Air Transport Association said last week that global passenger demand dropped significantly during November, down 70% versus the same period of 2019 when measured in revenue passenger kilometers.
Indonesian authorities said they have sent several search vessels from Jakarta to the plane’s last known location in the Java Sea, believed to be only around 25 meters deep, and divers are preparing to search for the aircraft’s black box. First responders were also deployed to the site to aid potential survivors, local TV reported. Of the 62 people, 56 were passengers, including seven children and three infants, and there were two pilots and four cabin crew, local media reported. There were no foreign nationals onboard.
“We are aware of media reports from Jakarta, and are closely monitoring the situation,” Boeing spokeswoman Zoe Leong said in a statement. “We are working to gather more information.” Sriwijaya Air said it’s working to obtain more detailed information about the flight, and will release an official statement later.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has appointed a senior investigator to assist in the probe, but is awaiting more information before determining whether it will send a team, it said in an emailed statement. Under a United Nations treaty, the NTSB along with technical experts from Boeing and possibly the manufacturers of other components would participate in the probe because the jet was built in the U.S.
The 737-500 model first flew in 1989 and, according to tracking website Planespotters.net, this particular plane first flew in May 1994. The jet’s last contact was at 2:40 p.m., according to Budi Karya Sumadi, Indonesia’s transportation minister.