Indonesia today ordered the suspension of aviation officials as it investigates the crash of AirAsia Flight 8501, also promising action against any domestic airlines violating their flying permits.
The crackdown came as a major search in the Java Sea entered its ninth day, struggling in bad weather to find more bodies or the "black box" flight data recorders which are crucial to determining the cause of the disaster.
Only three more bodies were recovered today, bringing the total found to 37. A total of 162 passengers and crew were aboard the Airbus A320-200 on December 28 when it crashed en route from Indonesia's second city Surabaya to Singapore.
Indonesia alleges the plane was flying on an unauthorised schedule. The transport ministry has now ordered airport and air navigation managers to "suspend the personnel involved" in the activity of Flight 8501, director general of air transport Djoko Murjatmodjo told reporters.
AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysia-based AirAsia, has already been suspended from flying the Surabaya-Singapore route, although Singapore officials said they had given permission for the flight at their end.
Murjatmodjo said they would halt any other airline found violating its permitted flight schedule in the country, which has a patchy aviation safety record.
"If, after assessment, another airline is also not flying on the approved schedule, that is a violation and we will suspend it too," Murjatmodjo said, adding that they were investigating how AirAsia had been flying on an unapproved schedule without the ministry's knowledge.
Search and rescue agency chief Bambang Soelistyo meanwhile said three more bodies from the crash were recovered today, but only two advance divers had been able to go down to the wreckage off the island of Borneo. Five large parts of the plane including the suspected tail have so far been located.
"The current was strong. So (most of) the divers are still on standby," Soelistyo told reporters.
The search, assisted by several countries including the United States and Russia, has been trying to expand eastwards on suspicions that strong currents have caused parts of the plane to drift.
Earlier in the day several aircraft made their way from Pangkalan Bun, a town on Borneo with the nearest airstrip to the wreckage, to scour the sea's surface. Speedboats were sweeping the coastline to look for any bodies that may have drifted ashore.
Indonesia's military chief General Moeldoko said he had offered to take relatives out to the crash site to pay their respects.
"We will bring them to the navy ships and we will take them to the location to scatter flowers, and I hope coming to the location can reduce their sadness and the feeling of loss," he told reporters.
- Hope to find black boxes -
Indonesia's meterological agency BMKG has said weather was the "triggering factor" of the crash, with ice likely damaging the plane's engines.
The initial report by BMKG into the likely cause of the crash referred to infra-red satellite pictures that showed the plane was passing through clouds with top temperatures of minus 80 to minus 85 degrees Celsius.
But it remained unclear why other planes on similar routes were unaffected by the weather, and other analysts said there was not enough information to explain the disaster until the flight recorders were recovered.
The transport ministry said at the weekend it would issue a circular insisting pilots were directly briefed by officials on weather conditions before flights, after reports that the AirAsia pilots had instead taken forecasts from the BMKG website.
Search and rescue official SB Supriyadi said the recovery teams were assessing whether to lift the plane parts off the seabed in an effort to find the flight data recorders.
The operation has prioritised finding the bodies of the victims, all but seven of whom were Indonesian. Some of the bodies have been found still strapped into their seats.
The daughter of the plane's pilot, Captain Iriyanto, made a televised plea late Sunday urging people not to blame her father. "He is just a victim and has not been found yet. My family is now mourning," said Angela Anggi Ranastianis.
"As a daughter, I cannot accept it. No pilot will harm his passengers," she told TV One.
In his last communication, experienced former air force pilot Iriyanto said he wanted to change course to avoid the menacing storm system, but he was not immediately allowed to ascend due to heavy air traffic. Then all contact was lost, about 40 minutes after take-off.
Many of the victims' relatives have gathered to wait for news and prepare funerals in Surabaya, where a crisis centre has been set up for identifying bodies.