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AirAsia jet was cleared to take off without all permits in order, officials say

    Members of a search team carried seats from AirAsia Flight 8501 on Monday after pieces of the wreckage were airlifted to the airport in Pangkalan Bun, Indonesia.

JAKARTA, Indonesia » AirAsia Flight 8501, which crashed in the Java Sea on Dec. 28, was allowed to take off from Surabaya, Indonesia, even though it did not have all the required clearances from regulators to fly that day, the Indonesian Transportation Ministry said on Monday.

The ministry said it was suspending several officials for allowing the flight to take off. And it said it had issued regulations requiring airlines operating in Indonesia to brief their pilots on weather conditions before each takeoff, a practice followed in many other countries.

Djoko Murjatmodjo, the ministry’s acting director-general of civil aviation, said at a news conference that the new regulations were issued Dec. 31. The cause of the crash has yet to be determined, but experts say it appeared that stormy weather encountered by the plane may have played a role.

Mr. Murjatmodjo said the ministry ordered the Surabaya airport to suspend officials who were on duty in key positions related to flight operations and air traffic control when Flight 8501 took off bound for Singapore. AirAsia officials declined to comment on the suspensions.

Officials have said that AirAsia had permits to fly the popular Surabaya-Singapore route on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, but later changed its schedule to fly on other days of the week, The Associated Press reported. Flight 8501 took off on a Sunday.

Mr. Murjatmodjo said that while Singapore officials had approved the Sunday flight, Indonesia had not, and the aviation agency used incorrect information in granting Flight 8501 a takeoff slot.

He said other airlines and airports across the country will also be scrutinized to see if they have been cutting corners in similar ways.

"Who knows if other airlines are also doing the same thing?" he told The Associated Press.

Indonesia has banned AirAsia from flying between the two cities until the investigation of the permit issue is complete.

Flight 8501, an Airbus A320 jetliner, crashed less than an hour after takeoff, and all 162 people who were on board are believed dead. Searchers contending with bad weather recovered three bodies from the flight on Monday, all still strapped to their seats, bringing the total found so far to 37.

Sonar has identified five large objects on the seafloor that are thought to be pieces of the aircraft’s fuselage, but strong currents, silt and mud have kept divers from seeing or reaching the objects, news agencies reported.

The captain of an Indonesian naval patrol vessel, quoted by Reuters, said that one of the objects might be the aircraft’s tail.

No signals have yet been heard from the aircraft’s cockpit voice and flight data recorders, and the weather has kept searchers from using underwater ping locaters to spot them.

The head of AirAsia’s Indonesian affiliate, Sunu Widyatmoko, told The A.P. on Monday in a text message that the airline would cooperate with the Indonesian government during the investigation, but would not comment on the permit allegations until the process was complete.

Alvin Lie, a former Indonesian lawmaker and aviation analyst, told the news agency that if AirAsia were found to be operating the Sunday flight without permission, the families of passengers killed in the crash would have a stronger legal case for compensation.

But he added that AirAsia would not bear all the blame.

"The Surabaya-Singapore flights have been operating since October, and the government didn’t know," he said. "Where was the government’s supervision?"

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