The huge search operation came across the objects in the Java Sea off the island of Borneo late Friday night, raising hopes that the remaining bodies and the plane’s black boxes, crucial to determining the cause of the crash, will soon be located.
The bodies of 30 of those killed when the plane crashed early Sunday during a storm en route from Indonesia’s second city of Surabaya to Singapore have so far been recovered.
“With the discovery of an oil spill and two big parts of the aircraft, I can assure you these are the parts of the AirAsia plane we have been looking for,” search and rescue agency chief Bambang Soelistyo told reporters.
He said they were now sending divers to the spot where the plane parts had been found to try and recover more bodies.
“The main focus today is to find and evacuate victims,” he said.
News of the discovery came after Indonesia’s transport ministry said AirAsia had been flying on an unauthorised schedule when it crashed. The airliner has now been suspended from flying the Surabaya-Singapore route.
“It violated the route permit given, the schedule given, that’s the problem,” said director general of air transport Djoko Murjatmodjo, adding that the permit for the route would be frozen until investigations were completed.
A statement from transport ministry spokesman J.A. Barata said AirAsia had not been permitted to fly the Surabaya-Singapore route on Sundays and had not asked to change its schedule.
It was unclear how the airliner had been able to fly without the necessary authorisation.
The plane was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysia-based AirAsia, which previously had a solid safety record.
Recovery teams, which have been hampered by rough weather in recent days, on Friday narrowed their search to an area of 45 by 35 nautical miles centred about 75 nautical miles southwest of Pangkalan Bun, a town in Central Kalimantan on Borneo.
Twenty-nine ships and 17 aircraft were engaged in the huge operation, deploying side-scan sonar equipment to survey the seabed and pinger locators to find the black boxes.
Russia has sent in dozens of divers to help with the operations, as well as two planes, one amphibious, Soelistyo said.
Hampered by strong current
The search chief said the larger of the two objects found on Friday night was about 10 metres by five metres (32 feet by 16 feet).
“As I speak we are lowering an ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) underwater to get an actual picture of the objects detected on the sea floor. All are at the depth of 30 metres,” Soelistyo said.
He added however that a strong current was making it difficult to operate the ROV.
The families of victims have been preparing funerals as the bodies recovered are identified in Surabaya, where a crisis centre has been set up at a police hospital with facilities to store 150 bodies.
AirAsia boss Tony Fernandes on Friday tweeted that he was arriving in Surabaya to take home flight attendant Khairunisa Haidar Fauzi after her body was identified.
“I cannot describe how I feel. There are no words,” Fernandes wrote.
Fauzi had recently posted an Instagram picture with the message “I love you from 38,000 ft” for her boyfriend.
Before take-off, the pilot of Flight 8501 had asked for permission to fly at a higher altitude to avoid a storm, but the request was not approved due to other planes above him on the popular route, according to AirNav, Indonesia’s air traffic control.
In his last communication shortly before all contact was lost, he said he wanted to change course to avoid the menacing storm system.
Of the 162 passengers and crew on board, 155 were Indonesian, with three South Koreans, one Singaporean, one Malaysian, one Briton and a Frenchman — co-pilot Remi Plesel.
The crash came at the end of a disastrous year for Malaysian air travel.
Flight MH370 disappeared in March en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew, while another Malaysia Airlines flight — MH17 — was shot down over Ukraine in July, killing all 298 on board. (AFP)