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As AirAsia debris found, Indonesia learns from Malaysia mistakes

President Joko Widodo says recovery efforts will focus on passengers and crew as his administration faces its first international crisis. The new Indonesian administration wants to avoid the criticism aimed at Malaysian leader Najib Razak after MH370 disappeared last March.

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    A relative of passengers of the missing AirAsia flight QZ8501 weeps as she prays at the crisis center at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014. More planes will be in the air and more ships on the sea Tuesday hunting for AirAsia Flight 8501 in a widening search off Indonesia that has dragged into a third day without any solid leads. Flight 8501 vanished Sunday in airspace thick with storm clouds on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore.
    Trisnadi Marjan/AP
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With ships and aircraft from four countries scouring the Java Sea for the AirAsia jetliner that disappeared Sunday en route from Indonesia to Singapore, Indonesian authorities are bending over backward to give as much information as possible, speaking plainly and directly to grief-stricken relatives, and constantly briefing reporters on the progress of the investigation.

In other words, Indonesia is doing all it can to avoid the public relations catastrophe of the Malaysian government after a Malaysia Airlines flight went missing in March. Relatives and reporters were left utterly in the dark for days by authorities in Kuala Lumpur after the flight, bound for China, disappeared off the radar.

On Tuesday, off the coast of Borneo, debris from life jackets and rafts was identified as wreckage from AirAsia QZ8501, the missing flight. Bodies were seen as well. The search centered on a patch of open water between the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. 

In some ways, the circumstance of three downed airliners from this part of the world in less than a year means the AirAsia tragedy is the first international test of the new administration of President Widodo, who, in a news conference immediately after the discovery of debris, said the “focus” of recovery now will be on “the passengers and crew,” and consoled relatives “in this difficult moment.”

“They seemed to have learned from the Malaysian Airlines experience,” says Ramlan Surbakti, professor of political science at Airladgga University in Surabaya. “They’re trying hard to be as transparent as possible.”

“We want to make all the relevant information available,” said Pramintohadi Sukarno, head of the airport authority of East Java, who is one of the local officials helping lead the search.

Last spring, Malaysian authorities, including Prime Minister Najib Razak, drew fire for often providing incomplete or contradictory information to already distressed relatives of passengers on MH370.

In contrast to the often-angry scenes in Kuala Lumpur at the time, relatives of AirAsia passengers sat politely at Surabaya’s Juanda airport in neat rows of white linen-draped chairs that faced maps of the search area. Adults in the area provided by the airport dabbed their eyes as they chatted. Some children sat stone-faced, all but ignoring box lunches given them by officials.

Indonesian civil aviation authorities and members of the National Search and Rescue Agency had been trying to be supportive of those who held hope of finding any of the 162 passengers and crew alive.

“At this stage it’s still possible there are survivors but that’s standard operating procedure,” says Mr. Sukarno, the official from East Java, last evening.

Air Asia flight QZ8501 vanished from radar early on Dec. 28 roughly 40 minutes after taking off from Surabaya for Singapore. The incident at first seemed similar to the mystery still shrouding the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in March. Both carriers are based out of Malaysia. Both Malaysian Airlines’s Boeing 777 and AirAsia’s Airbus A320 vanished without making a distress signal.

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