By Jon Emont, Andrew Tangel and Doug Cameron 

A Boeing Co. passenger plane carrying 62 people crashed into the Java Sea on Saturday, Indonesian authorities said.

The Sriwijaya Air jet lost contact with air-traffic controllers and disappeared from radar minutes after taking off from the country's capital, Jakarta, transport ministry officials said. It was on a 90-minute flight from Jakarta to Pontianak, the capital of West Kalimantan province on Indonesia's Borneo island, and went missing at 2:40 p.m. local time, a spokeswoman for the ministry, Adita Irawati, said.

The aircraft involved was a 26-year-old Boeing 737-500, according to Theodora Erika, a spokeswoman for Sriwijaya Air, which is an Indonesian carrier. Sriwijaya flight SJ182 departed at 2:36 p.m. local time, climbing to a maximum altitude of 10,900 feet about four minutes later and then beginning a steep descent, according to aviation data provider Flightradar24. The last data signal from the aircraft was at an altitude of 250 feet, Flightradar24 said.

Boeing said in a statement Saturday that it was aware of the reports from Jakarta and was closely monitoring the situation. "We are in contact with our airline customer and stand ready to support them during this difficult time," it said. CFM International, which made the jet's engines, said it was providing technical assistance to the authorities and the airline. CFM is a joint venture between General Electric Co. and Safran SA.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it was prepared to assist the National Transportation Safety Board's participation in the probe if the Indonesian authorities make such a request.

The Boeing aircraft involved isn't the 737 MAX, the newest version of the company's single-aisle jet family, which had been grounded nearly two years ago following two deadly crashes.

Sriwijaya Air began operating the aircraft in 2012. Immediately before that airline, the plane was flown by United Airlines, according to Flightradar24. Boeing first delivered the plane in 1994 to Continental Airlines, a predecessor carrier to Chicago-based United Airlines Holdings Inc.

Indonesian officials said at a news conference that of the 62 people on board, 12 were crew members. The plane was believed to have crashed around Kepulauan Seribu, a series of islands near Jakarta, the country's search and rescue agency said. The agency said it had received reports from the local community that debris had been found in the area and that it had launched an investigation.

Another government agency involved in the recovery said it had prepared equipment for an underwater search, with the goal of locating the airplane's black box on Sunday.

Indonesia television showed footage of passengers' relatives crying at the airport while they waited for updates from authorities. One elderly woman was seen making phone calls while rocking back and forth in her chair in grief.

"Our prayers are with all passengers, crew and families," Sriwijaya Air said in a statement.

Recovering black boxes after a plane crashes into the sea can be a protracted process. When an AirAsia flight crashed into the Java Sea in 2014, it took about two weeks to recover one of the devices. When an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed in 2009, it took about two years to recover the storage devices from that plane. And they have not been recovered in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The 737 jet models that entered service around the same time as the plane that crashed have a good safety record of roughly one fatal accident per 4 million departures world-wide. That's comparable to other widely-used Boeing models such the 757 and wide-body 777 jets, though far above the rate for 737 models introduced later.

According to Boeing's safety statistics, there was one fatal crash in 2019 of such a vintage 737 Classic, an older model in the 737 family of jets.

For Boeing, the latest crash comes at a difficult time. The 737 MAX recently resumed passenger service with some airlines in countries including Brazil and the U.S.

In November, U.S. aviation regulators cleared the 737 MAX to fly again after they approved a number of safety fixes, which included new software and training changes related to a flight-control system, largely blamed in the two crashes, and revised pilot training procedures. That flight-control system was new to the MAX and not on older 737 models.

The two MAX accidents, in Indonesia in October 2018 and in Ethiopia in March 2019, together claimed 346 lives. Boeing this week agreed to a $2.5 billion deal that included a fine as well as compensation to victims' families and airlines to resolve a U.S. Justice Department criminal investigation and admit that employees deceived aviation regulators about safety issues that led to the twin MAX crashes.

The 737-500 Classic seats between 110 and 132 passengers. Boeing rolled out the last Classic from its production line in 1999.

A relatively small number of 737-500s remain in operation around the world. Of nearly 4,300 737s in service globally, there are only 94 of this older variant currently in operation, according to aviation data provider Ascend by Cirium.

Indonesia, an archipelagic nation of 270 million, has seen a rapid surge in air travel during the past decade as incomes have risen and people have sought out faster forms of inter-island transit. The country has suffered a number of air tragedies.

In the 2014 AirAsia crash, the jetliner went down amid stormy weather, killing all 162 people aboard, with investigators subsequently citing pilot error and maintenance lapses as major causes. In 2013, a Lion Air flight crashed into the shallow waters off Bali, though all passengers survived.

Indonesia's air-safety record has experienced major problems in the past, with both U.S. and European regulators at various times restricting flights of carriers based in the country. Regulators, among other issues, cited lax government oversight, inadequate pilot training and maintenance lapses. Statistics from the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, showed that Indonesian commercial flights had an accident rate around three times higher than the global average from 2008 to 2010.

But in 2016, the FAA upgraded the country's status to the highest ranking under the agency's international safety assessment program, and by 2017, their ICAO record had come closer to the global norm after a government campaign to improve the country's air safety. In June 2018, the European Commission lifted all restrictions against Indonesian carriers, citing safety improvements. In 2019, Indonesia had an accident rate below the global average, according to the ICAO statistics.

Doug Cameron contributed to this article.

Write to Jon Emont at jonathan.emont@wsj.com, Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com and Doug Cameron at doug.cameron@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 09, 2021 17:31 ET (22:31 GMT)

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