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Indonesia halts flights amid doubts over AirAsia permit

PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia -- Highlighting the depth of Indonesia's air safety problems, the transportation ministry revealed harsh measures Monday against everyone who allowed AirAsia Flight 8501 to take off -- apparently without proper permits -- including the suspension of the airport's operator and officials in the control tower.

The licenses and schedules of all airlines flying in the country also will be examined to see if they are violating the rules, said Djoko Murjatmodjo, acting director general of air transportation.

"Who knows if other airlines are also doing the same thing," he said.

The crackdown comes as searchers continue to fight bad weather while combing the Java Sea for bodies and wreckage of the Airbus A320 that crashed Dec. 28, killing all 162 passengers and crew on board.

CBS News' Allen Pizzey reports that searchers finally got a break in the weather Monday, which could help in the hunt for the vital "black boxes," or flight data and cockpit voice recorders.

AirAsia Flight 8501: Dozens more bodies found
AirAsia Flight 8501 search finds large objects on ocean floor

Since the plane's disappearance, a massive international hunt has been underway. So far, 37 bodies have been recovered, including three more Monday, and sonar has identified five large pieces of what's believed to be the plane on the ocean floor. Divers have tried to get a visual on the objects, but strong currents, silt and mud have kept them from reaching it.

Pizzey reports that an Indonesian Navy captain said Monday he was "confident" his ship had pinpointed the tail section of the plane where the black boxes are located, but location of the key wreckage was not confirmed, and there had been no detection of the "pings" emitted by the black boxes.

The plane was traveling between Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, and Singapore on a Sunday. Some officials had since said its permit for the popular route was only for Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and that AirAsia quietly switched three of those days.

An Indonesian regional aviation official who early Monday refuted that claim and said AirAsia had been permitted to fly the route, retracted his statement later in the day.

Praminto Hadi, the director of Civil Aviation of Juanda, Surabaya, said in a statement after discussions with the Director General of Civil Aviation on Monday evening that the flight was operating illegally. He said his earlier statement was incorrect and that the discussions with the head office had shown that there was no application by AirAsia to change their flight schedule for the route to include Sundays.

AirAsia co-founder and co-owner Kamaruddin Meranun insisted the airline had not violated any rules regarding flying permits in Indonesia.

"Our operations have followed all procedural requirements in Indonesia and the flight QZ8501 was a legitimate one," Meranun told CBS News.

Officials in Singapore have said the plane was authorized to fly on Sundays from their end.

While the airline is being investigated, Indonesia announced on Saturday that it banned all AirAsia flights between Surabaya and Singapore.

Murjatmodjo said the ministry also issued a directive Dec. 31 ordering all airlines to provide pilots with up-to-date weather reports before they take off. Currently, it's up to the captain and co-pilot to research and evaluate flying conditions before departing. In other countries, the carrier's flight operations department performs that task for them.

While the airline is being investigated, Indonesia has banned all AirAsia flights between Surabaya and Singapore.

AirAsia Indonesia President Director Sunu Widyatmoko said by text Monday that the airline will cooperate with the government during the evaluation, but would not comment on the permit allegations until the process is complete.

Violation of the regulations would boost legal arguments for passengers' family members seeking compensation, said Alvin Lie, a former lawmaker and aviation analyst. But he added AirAsia would not be the only one to blame.

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

Murjatmodjo said key individuals who allowed to plane to fly without permits would be suspended while the investigation is pending.

The ministry also issued a directive Dec. 31 ordering all airlines to provide pilots with up-to-date weather reports before they take off, he said.

He also planned to meet Monday with the Corruption Eradication Commission to discuss whether to investigate AirAsia's operations. Business in the country is commonly conducted using bribery, with payoffs often seen as the most efficient way to get things done.

Dozens of airlines emerged after Indonesia deregulated its aviation industry in the 1990s, making air travel affordable for the first time for many in the world's fourth most populous nation. But a string of accidents in recent years has raised urgent questions about the safety of Indonesia's booming airline sector, with experts saying poor maintenance, rule-bending, and a shortage of trained professionals are partly to blame.

AirAsia, which began operations in 2001 and quickly became one of the region's leaders in low-cost air travel, has not experienced any other crashes and is widely considered a benchmark for safety and professionalism.

AirAsia Flight 8501: How close are we to answers?

It is not known what caused Flight 8501 to crash into the Java Sea 42 minutes after taking off on what was supposed to be a two-hour flight. Just before losing contact, the pilot told air traffic control that he was approaching threatening clouds, but was denied permission to climb to a higher altitude because of heavy air traffic.

The bodies and debris recovered so far have not had any burn marks, reports Pizzey, which aviation experts say rules out an onboard explosion, leaving the options of a catastrophic nose dive or an attempt to belly land on the sea in bad weather.

Icing caused by the storm that the pilots couldn't avoid was a "triggering factor" in the crash, according to a report by Indonesia's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency.

As bodies have been flown back to Surabaya, one by one, many victims' family members have struggled to deal with the slow process and fears that their loved ones may never be found.

On Monday, the relatives were offered a chance to visit the site where the plane crashed into the sea, to scatter flowers and say good-bye.

"I will facilitate the families of the victims who want to see the scene directly and how rescuers are battling high waves and bad weather to search for their loved ones and the plane," said Gen. Moeldoko, Indonesia's top military commander. "We'll prepare two aircraft and a warship for them to go there and throw flowers."

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