[JAKARTA] Search teams including divers took advantage of a let-up in bad weather on Tuesday to try to reach the wreckage of an AirAsia jet, but nine days after the plane crashed officials said there was still no sign of the crucial black box flight recorders.
Indonesian officials believe they may have located the tail and parts of the fuselage of the Airbus A320-200 at the bottom of the Java Sea, but strong currents, high winds and big waves have hindered attempts to investigate the debris.
Flight QZ8501 plunged into the water off Borneo island on Dec 28, about 40 minutes into a two-hour flight from Indonesia's second-biggest city of Surabaya to Singapore. There were no survivors among the 162 people on board.
Jakarta has launched a crackdown on its fast-growing aviation sector since the crash, reassigning some officials and tightening rules on pre-flight procedures in a country with a patchy reputation for air safety.
"Today's weather is friendly, the team can work," the head of Indonesia's search and rescue agency, Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo, told a news conference in Jakarta.
Mr Soelistyo said the multinational air and sea operation had two objectives: to recover bodies and wreckage floating in an ever-widening search area in the northern Java Sea, and to find wreckage and the plane's black box on the ocean floor.
The latter effort is focused on an area about 90 nautical miles off Borneo, where ships using sonar have located five large objects believed to be parts of the plane - the largest about 18 metres (59 feet) long - in shallow water.
Search and rescue agency official Supriyadi, who is coordinating the operation from the southern Borneo town of Pangkalan Bun, said there had been no "pings" detected from the black box's emergency locator beacon, possibly because it was buried in the seabed or the muddy water was impeding its signal.
"They haven't found anything, maybe because the water is turbid and there is zero visibility," he said. "There's a possibility it is buried in mud."
The captain of an Indonesian navy patrol vessel said on Monday his ship had found what was believed to be the tail - a key find since that section of the aircraft houses the cockpit voice and flight data recorders - but Mr Soelistyo said that could not be confirmed.
Only 37 bodies of the mostly Indonesian passengers and crew have been recovered. Many more could still be trapped in the fuselage of the aircraft.
The crash was the first fatal accident suffered by the AirAsia budget group, whose Indonesian affiliate has come under criticism from the authorities in Jakarta since the disaster.
The transport ministry has suspended Indonesia AirAsia's Surabaya-Singapore licence, saying the carrier only had permission to fly the route on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Flight QZ8501 took off on a Sunday.
Indonesia AirAsia, 49 per cent owned by Malaysia-based AirAsia, has made little comment, but said it would fully cooperate with investigations.
Indonesia's financial regulator said it did not believe the issue of whether the airline had the correct flight permits would affect insurers paying out on claims.
"AirAsia didn't fall because it was a Sunday," Firdaus Djaelani, non-bank financial institutions supervisor at the financial services authority, told reporters in Jakarta.
While the cause of the crash is not known, the national weather bureau has said the seasonal tropical storms common in the area were likely to be a factor. Last week, the authorities questioned whether the pilot had followed proper weather procedures.
On Monday, the transport ministry said officials at the airport operator in Surabaya and air traffic control agency who had allowed the flight to take off had been moved to other duties while the accident investigation is completed.
It also said it had issued a directive making it mandatory for pilots to be briefed face-to-face by an airline flight operations officer on weather conditions and other operational issues before every flight.
Indonesia is one of the world's fastest growing aviation markets and its carriers, such as Lion Air and Garuda Indonesia , are among the top customers for plane makers Airbus and Boeing.
But its safety record is chequered. The European Commission banned all Indonesia-based airlines from flying to the European Union in 2007 following a series of accidents. Exemptions to that ban have since been granted to some carriers, including Garuda and AirAsia.