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AirAsia jet with 162 on board goes missing on way to Singapore

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(CNN) — The search is on for an AirAsia plane carrying 162 people that lost contact with air traffic control in Indonesia on Sunday.

Before communication was lost, AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 asked to deviate from its planned flight route — from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore — because of weather conditions, AirAsia said in a statement.

Flight 8501 went missing at 7:24 a.m. Sunday (7:24 p.m. Saturday ET), nearly two hours after takeoff, as it flew over the Java Sea. From flight tracking websites, it looks as though almost the entire flight path is over the sea.

“At this time, search and rescue operations are being conducted under the guidance of the Indonesian Civil Aviation Authority,” AirAsia said.

Of the people on board the Airbus A320-200, 156 are Indonesian, three are South Korean, one is French, one is Malaysian and one is Singaporean, the airline said. It had earlier said 157 of those on the plane are Indonesian.

Seventeen children, including one infant, are among the passengers, the carrier said.

“Thank you for all your thoughts and prayers. we must stay strong,” AirAsia Chief Executive Tony Fernandes said on Twitter. As word spread of the missing plane, the airline changed the color of its logo on its social media accounts from red to gray.

Flight 8501 “was requesting deviation due to en route weather before communication with the aircraft was lost,” the airline said.

Bad weather was in evidence in the region at the time, CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam said.

“We still had lines of very heavy thunderstorms” when the plane was flying, Van Dam said. “But keep in mind, turbulence doesn’t necessarily bring down airplanes.”

CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo questioned whether weather would have been a factor in what happened to the plane.

“Ordinarily, the pilots would get the updated weather from air traffic control and, of course, their onboard radar,” said Schiavo, a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation. “So whether there was (bad) weather in the area would not be a mystery.”

AirAsia is a Malaysia-based airline that is popular in the region as a budget carrier. It has about 100 destinations, with affiliates companies in several Asian countries.

The missing plane is operated by AirAsia’s Indonesian affiliate, in which the Malaysian company holds a 48.9% stake, according to its website.

The Malaysian government is ready to offer any assistance to its Indonesian and Singaporean counterparts, Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said in a statement.

AirAsia has a “very good” reputation for safety, CNN aviation correspondent Richard Quest said.

Flight 8501’s captain has a total of 6,100 flying hours and the first officer a total of 2,275 flying hours, the airline said.

The loss of contact with the AirAsia plane comes nearly 10 months after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which dropped off radar over Southeast Asia on March 8 with 239 people on board.

Searchers have yet to find any debris from Flight 370, which officials believe crashed in the southern Indian Ocean.

U.S. President Barack Obama has been briefed about the missing AirAsia plane, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said, adding that U.S. officials will continue to monitor the situation.

CNN’s Yousuf Basil, Steve Almasy, Holly Yan, Paula Hancocks, Joe Sutton and Larry Register contributed to this report. Journalist Chan Kok Leong also contributed to this report.