The Missing AirAsia Plane Should Be Much Easier To Find Than MH370

AirAsia plane search
An Indonesian policeman points at a map of Indonesia at a crisis centre in Juanda International Airport, Surabaya December 29, 2014. REUTERS/Beawiharta

Immediately after AirAsia flight QZ8501 went missing on Sunday, the disappearance drew comparisons to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which vanished in March and has never been found.

But the search for this plane isn’t likely to be as difficult as the fruitless hunt for MH370.

The AirAsia plane went missing during a flight from Indonesia to Singapore shortly after the crew asked to deviate from its planned flight path because of bad weather.

The crew lost contact with air traffic control at about 6:17 a.m. local time Sunday, about halfway through the flight. The plane was initially thought to have crashed near the Indonesian island of Belitung, which is near the plane’s last known location.

Officials have said that the plane is likely “at the bottom of the sea” by now.

Although the circumstances of the AirAsia disappearance appear similar to those of MH370, there are key differences that should make this search easier than the last one:

  • The body of water each plane disappeared over: Oceanographer Simon Boxall explained to NBC News that the area of the Java Sea where the AirAsia plane vanished is only about 130 to 164 feet deep on average. By contrast, the area of the Indian Ocean where MH370 is thought to have disappeared reaches depths of about 13,000 feet. And since the Java Sea isn’t nearly as remote or vast as the southern Indian Ocean, search crews will have an easier time reaching the search area.
  • The area where the plane disappeared is heavily trafficked: And unlike the southern Indian Ocean, the Java Sea is a commonly used shipping channel that sees a lot of traffic, according to CNN. There are also populated landmasses nearby. 
  • The crew was communicating normally with air traffic control: In the MH370 case, someone shut off the plane’s transponder, which sends out location data, and the pilots stopped making radio transmissions before the plane vanished. But flight QZ8501 was communicating normally before it went off the grid and the pilot indicated there was bad weather ahead that he was trying to get out of, according to Peter Goelz, an aviation expert and former National Transportation Safety Board official who spoke to CNN.
  • There seems to be less misinformation and confusion: In the initial days and weeks following the MH370 disappearance, the response from Malaysia Airlines officials and the country’s government was muddled and a lot of contradictory information was being released. The Daily Beast points out that in this case, AirAsia almost immediately created a place on its website where people could find the most up-to-date information and emergency call center numbers. The response has also been mostly swift and coordinated.

There was a lot of false hope soon after MH370 disappeared that search teams would find the plane in the first few days — supposed debris and oil slicks were spotted early on, but nothing panned out, and searchers eventually focused on the southern Indian Ocean, which isn’t where investigators initially thought the plane disappeared.

But there seems to be less mystery surrounding QZ8501. The transponders weren’t shut off as far as we know, the pilots were communicating normally with air traffic control and mentioned bad weather, and there hasn’t been evidence showing the plane made any sort of mysterious turn off its flight path like MH370 did.

The second day of the QZ8501 search turned up nothing. Early on Monday, Indonesian officials announced that teams spotted possible debris in the water, but it turned out to be nothing. The Indonesian government is now expanding the search area and the US has been asked to help.

The missing plane is an Airbus A320-200, a popular and generally reliable model. The plane is about six years old and is operated by AirAsia’s Indonesian affiliate, which the Malaysia-based company holds a 48.9% stake in, CNN reports

The missing plane carried 155 Indonesians, along with three people from South Korea and one each from Singapore, Britain, Malaysia, and France. The passengers included 16 children and one infant.

AirAsia plane map