PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia – Highlighting the depth of Indonesia's air safety problems, the transportation ministry revealed harsh measures Monday against everyone who allowed AirAsia Flight 8501 to take off without proper permits -- including the suspension of the airport's operator and officials in the control tower.
The licenses and schedules of all airlines flying in the country also will be examined to see if they are violating the rules, said Djoko Murjatmodjo, acting director general of air transportation.
The crackdown comes as searchers continue to fight bad weather while combing the Java Sea for bodies and wreckage of the Airbus A320 that crashed Dec. 28, killing all 162 passengers and crew on board.
The plane was traveling between Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, and Singapore on a Sunday. Officials have since said its permit for the popular route was only for Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and that AirAsia quietly switched three of those days. Officials in Singapore, however, have said the plane was authorized to fly on Sundays from its end.
While the airline is being investigated, Indonesia announced on Saturday that it banned all AirAsia flights between Surabaya and Singapore.
Murjatmodjo said the ministry also issued a directive Dec. 31 ordering all airlines to provide pilots with up-to-date weather reports before they take off. Currently, it's up to the captain and co-pilot to research and evaluate flying conditions before departing. In other countries, the carrier's flight operations department performs that task for them.
Dozens of airlines emerged after Indonesia deregulated its aviation industry in the 1990s, making air travel affordable for the first time for many in the world's fourth most populous nation. But a string of accidents in recent years has raised urgent questions about the safety of Indonesia's booming airline sector, with experts saying poor maintenance, rule-bending, and a shortage of trained professionals are partly to blame.
AirAsia, which began operations in 2001 and quickly became one of the region's leaders in low-cost air travel, has not experienced any other crashes and is widely considered a benchmark for safety and professionalism.
It is not known what caused Flight 8501 to crash into the Java Sea 42 minutes after taking off on what was supposed to be a two-hour flight. Just before losing contact, the pilot told air traffic control that he was approaching threatening clouds, but was denied permission to climb to a higher altitude because of heavy air traffic.
While it remains unclear what caused the disaster, bad weather appears to have been a factor, according to a report by Indonesia's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency.
Since the plane's disappearance, a massive international hunt has been underway. So far, 37 bodies have been recovered, including three more Monday, and sonar has identified five large pieces of what's believed to be the plane on the ocean floor. Divers have tried to get a visual on the objects, but strong currents, silt and mud have kept them from reaching it.
As bodies have been flown back to Surabaya, one by one, many victims' family members have struggled to deal with the slow process and fears that their loved ones may never be found.
On Monday, the relatives were offered a chance to visit the site where the plane crashed into the sea, to scatter flowers and say good-bye.
"I will facilitate the families of the victims who want to see the scene directly and how rescuers are battling high waves and bad weather to search for their loved ones and the plane," said Gen. Moeldoko, Indonesia's top military commander. "We'll prepare two aircraft and a warship for them to go there and throw flowers."