Indonesian rescue teams Tuesday night were continuing to search for a missing Adam Air Boeing 737-400 thought to have crashed the previous day in mountains on Sulawesi island.
Relatives of the 102 passengers and crew were becoming increasingly angry following a day of farce that began with reports of the aircraft being found and, a few hours later, that 12 people had survived the crash.
Hatta Radjassa, Indonesia’s transport minister, told the Financial Times on Tuesday night that all such stories were wrong. “Search and rescue teams are still looking for the plane. We do not know where it is,” he said.
“The weather is so bad the aerial search has been called off but the people on the ground will continue looking through the night.”
The teams are combing an area 250km north of Makassar, the main city in southern Sulawesi, in densely forested mountains up to 2,500 metres above sea level that are sparsely populated and out of mobile phone range.
Setio Rahardjo, head of Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Board, said the initial reports of the aircraft being found and there being survivors had come from local police.
Adam Air had also said on Tuesday afternoon that the wreckage had been found, that official search teams had reached it and that bodies were being recovered`.
Three Americans were among the 102 people on board the aircraft, the US embassy confirmed. The remaining passengers were thought to be Indonesian.
The 17-year-old aeroplane lost contact with air traffic controllers at 3.07pm on Monday while flying at 10,600 metres in very bad weather from Surabaya, in east Java, to Manado, in northern Sulawesi.
Mr Setio said it was still too early to speculate on what had caused the crash. “This is going to be a very long process,” he said.
A six-person team from the US, comprising representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing and General Electric, who made the aircraft’s engines, would leave for Indonesia today to help with the investigation, Mr Setio said.
Derek Sadubin, general manager of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, said safety precautions had not kept pace with the growth of Indonesia’s passenger aviation sector. Many airlines were operating old aircraft with a lot of hours on the clock, he said.
Last year, an Adam Air aircraft flew off course for four hours, while in September 2005 a Mandala Airlines plane crashed at Medan, killing all 102 people on board and 47 on the ground.
Despite the publicity from these incidents, passenger numbers on Indonesia’s eight largest airlines have experienced double-digit growth during the past few years, rising from a low of 6m during the financial crisis of 1998 to 30m last year.
“The country is so well suited to aviation; there are low prices and a burgeoning middle class,” Mr Sadubin said. “It’s a perfect mix to stimulate growth in demand. What we’re seeing is that [accidents] haven’t taken the heat out of the sector’s growth.”
Yaddy Supriyadi, an Indonesian aviation analyst, agreed that safety concerns were not among passengers’ priorities. “Most people choose the airline with the cheapest tickets,” he said. “They don’t think about the airline’s safety culture.”
Growth is so strong that the sector has started to attract foreign investors. Malaysia’s booming low-cost carrier Air Asia bought 49 per cent of Awair, an Indonesian budget airline, in 2004 and last year the US-based Indigo Partners, which owns 24 per cent of Singapore’s Tiger Airways, bought 49 per cent of Mandala Airlines.
One manager with a foreign airline said it was hard to see how Indonesia’s budget carriers were financing maintenance costs given the low fares they were offering. “The figures just don’t add up,” he said.