Q: What could have happened?
A: It is way too early to know for sure, but here
are some options. The plane was in the safest
part of flight: Just 10 percent of fatal crashes
from 2004 through 2013 occurred while a plane
was at cruise elevation, according to a safety
study published by Boeing in August.
Passing through bad weather such as severe
thunderstorms could have been a factor. Airbus
jets have sophisticated computers that
automatically adjust to wind shears or other
weather disruptions. But weather — combined
with pilot errors — has played a role in past air
disasters that occurred at cruise elevation,
including the 2009 Air France Flight 447 crash
over the Atlantic Ocean.
Another possibility is some type of catastrophic
metal fatigue caused by the cycle of
pressurization and depressurization associated
with each takeoff and landing cycle. This A320
had had 13,600 takeoffs and landings. Many
occurred in humid climate, which speeds
corrosion. Still, metal fatigue is unlikely because
this plane is only 6 years old.
Finally, there’s the possibility of terrorism or a
mass murder by the pilot. There’s no evidence
of either action, but neither can yet be ruled
Q: What did the pilots say to air traffic
A: The last communication between the pilot
and air traffic control was at 6:13am on Sunday
when the pilot “asked to avoid clouds by
turning left and going higher to 34,000 feet
(10,360 meters).” The last radar contact
occurred three minutes later. There was no
distress call. But pilots are trained to focus first
on the emergency at hand and then
communicate only when free.
Q: Isn’t this the third Malaysian jet to crash
A: Sort of. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
disappeared with 239 people aboard soon after
takeoff from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March
8. Its whereabouts and what happened remain
one of the biggest mysteries in commercial
aviation. Another Malaysia Airlines flight, also a
Boeing 777, was shot down over rebel-
controlled eastern Ukraine while en route from
Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17. All 298
people aboard were killed. AirAsia is also based
in Malaysia. But Flight 8501 was operated by
AirAsia Indonesia, a subsidiary that’s 49 percent
owned by the Malaysian parent company. So
technically, it’s an Indonesian airline. But the
AirAsia brand is closely tied to the people of
Q: Is there a connection among all these
A: No. It’s just a very unfortunate year for
Southeast Asia. But that doesn’t stop
conspiracy theories from sprouting. Ideas about
what happened to Flight 370 — both logical and
bizarre — keep appearing. The unsolved nature
of that disappearance could generate more
attention for Flight 8501 and create a new
batch of hypotheses.
Q: How far could the jet have flown?
A: Looking at the flight’s paperwork, the plane
had more than 18,000 pounds of jet fuel at
takeoff, enough to fly about more than 3 hours,
according to Phil Derner Jr, the founder of
aviation enthusiast website NYCAviation.com
and a flight dispatcher for a US airline. He notes
that that’s less fuel than most flights tend to
carry from New York to Florida.
Q: What’s next?
A: Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia are
conducting a search-and-rescue operation near
Belitung island in the Java Sea, the plane’s last
known whereabouts. Assuming that the jet
didn’t veer far off course, the searchers should
find wreckage, which can provide clues about
what happened. Investigators will also try to
recover the flight data and cockpit voice
recorders, which often have the most detailed
information about the plane’s final moments.
Those so-called black boxes have homing
beacons that help searchers find them.
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Q: Is the Airbus A320 a safe jet?
A: The plane is a workhorse of modern aviation.
Similar to the Boeing 737, the single-aisle,
twin-engine jet is used to connect cities that
are between one and five hours apart.
Worldwide, 3,606 A320s are in operation,
according to Airbus, which also makes nearly
identical versions of the plane: The smaller
A318 and A319 and the stretched A321. An
additional 2,486 of those jets are flying. The
A320 family has a good safety record, with just
0.14 fatal accidents per million takeoffs,
according to the Boeing safety study.
Q: What about AirAsia?
A: Low-cost AirAsia has a strong presence in
most of Southeast Asia, and it recently
expanded into India. Though most of its flights
are just a few hours long, it has tried to expand
into long-distance flying through its sister
airline AirAsia X. None of its subsidiaries has
lost a plane before, and it has a generally good
safety record. But it does fly in a part of the
world where air travel has expanded faster than
the number of qualified pilots, mechanics and
air traffic controllers.
Q: What about flying in Indonesia?
A: The country has had a bumpy safety record.
In 2007, the crash rate and safety standards
were so bad that the European Union barred all
of Indonesia’s airlines from flying into any of its
member countries. Than ban was lifted in 2009.
But Indonesia’s main airline — fast-growing
Lion Air — is still banned by the EU.
Q: What’s it like to fly through a thunderstorm
at 34,000 feet?
A: Planes flying through thunderstorms
experience severe turbulence, with the aircraft
moving up, down, sideways and rolling.
Anything not secured can float around in the
cabin, bouncing off things and people. Overhead
bins can open up, spilling contents. Airsickness
Q: What do pilots do to avoid thunderstorms?
A: If at all possible, airline pilots fly around
thunderstorms, even if it means going far out of
their way. Airliners like the A320 typically are
equipped with radar that provides highly
accurate weather information. Pilots can see a
thunderstorm forming from over 100 miles
away, giving them time to plot a way around
the storm cluster or to look for gaps to fly
through. It’s usually not a problem for
commercial planes to go 100 or more miles out
of the way.
Q: How high can an A320 safely fly? and what
if it exceeds that limit?
A: The A320 is certified to fly up to 39,000 feet,
its maximum altitude before its rate of climb
begins to erode. The plane has an absolute
flight limit of 42,000 feet. But it can begin to
experience problems as low as 37,000 feet,
depending on temperature and weight, including
fuel, cargo and passengers. The plane’s
computers should reveal the maximum altitude
at which the plane can fly at its current weight
and temperature. Planes that exceed their
maximum altitude may lose lift, causing an
aerodynamic stall. Or they can experience a
pressurization blowout, damaging the plane.
Q: How does a plane just fall off radar?
A: It’s still unclear what traffic controllers saw
on their screens when the plane disappeared
from radar. Authorities haven’t said whether
they lost only the secondary radar target, which
is created by the plane’s transponder, or
whether the primary radar target, created by
energy reflected from the plane, was lost as
well. If a plane came apart in the air or suffered
a loss of electrical power, the secondary target
would be lost, but the primary target is often
still visible on radar. But if the plane were
descending at rate of over 6,000 feet a minute
— typical of a plane about to crash — the
primary target might be lost as well.
Q: How vital is air travel to the region?
A: For many people, it’s the only option.
Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago of 250
million people. To get from one island to
another, the easiest way is to fly. As the
region’s economy has grown, so have the
number of people flying. The International Air
Transport Association recently named Indonesia
as one of the world’s five fastest-growing air
travel markets, predicting an additional 183
million passengers would take to the sky within
Routes to, from and within the Asia-Pacific
region are predicted by the industry trade group
to see an extra 1.8 billion annual passengers by
2034, for an overall market size of 2.9 billion.
Within two decades, the region is expected to
account for 42 percent of global passenger
The increase in regional airline traffic reflects
rapid economic growth. The International
Monetary Fund expects the Southeast Asian
economies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines,
Thailand and Vietnam to grow faster this year
and next than anywhere except China, India and