A missing AirAsia jet carrying 162 people could be at the bottom of the sea after it was presumed to have crashed off the Indonesian coast, an official said on Monday, as countries around Asia sent ships and planes to help in the search.

The Indonesia AirAsia plane, an Airbus A320-200, disappeared after its pilot failed to get permission to fly higher to avoid bad weather during a flight from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore on Sunday.

Flight QZ8501 did not issue a distress signal and disappeared over the Java Sea five minutes after requesting the change of course, which was refused because of heavy air traffic, officials said.

"Based on our coordinates, we expect it is in the sea, so for now (we think) it is on the sea floor," Soelistyo, head of Indonesia's search and rescue agency, told reporters when asked about the missing plane's likely location.

A senior Indonesian civil aviation source told Reuters that authorities had the flight's radar data and were waiting for search and rescue teams to find debris before they started their investigation into the cause.

AirAsia Flight QZ8501

The search operation for Flight QZ8501 is based out of Jakarta, Indonesia and consists of personnel, equipment and planes and vessels from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. (Darren Whiteside/Reuters)

Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan said the search was focused on an area of 240 square kilometres between the island of Belitung, off Sumatra, and Borneo island.

He said the sea there was only 50 to 100 metres deep, which would be a help in finding the plane. Ships could hunt around the clock, but aircraft were expected to suspend operations at dusk.

Air force spokesman Hadi Tjahjanto said searchers were checking a report of an oil slick off Belitung. They had picked up an emergency locator signal off the south of Borneo but no subsequent signal was found, he said.

On board Flight QZ8501 were 155 Indonesians, three South Koreans, and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia and Britain. The co-pilot was French.

Family members of people who were on the flight are holding a vigil in the Singapore airport where the missing jet was supposed to land, said CBC reporter Jeff Semple.

"You can see the exhaustion on their face, their bloodshot eyes just staring at the phones. (They are) waiting and hoping for some word about whether their loved one may be found alive," Semple said.

The disappearance caps a disastrous year for Malaysia-affiliated airlines. Indonesia AirAsia is 49 per cent owned by Malaysia-based budget carrier AirAsia.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing on March 8 on a trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew and has not been found. On July 17, the same airline's Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.

The AirAsia group, including affiliates in Thailand, the Philippines and India, had not suffered a crash since its Malaysian budget operations began in 2002. The group's shares in Kuala Lumpur closed 8.5 percent lower.

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, visiting relatives of people on the flight in Surabaya, told reporters the search by 30 ships and 15 aircraft, about halfway between Surabaya and Singapore, was being hampered by bad weather.

Anger grew among about 100 relatives at a crisis centre at the airport in Indonesia's second-largest city.

"We only need clear information every hour on where they are going," said Franky Chandra, who has a sibling and three friends on the flight, referring to the search teams.

AirAsia Flight QZ8501 relatives

Relatives and next-of-kin of passengers on the AirAsia flight QZ8501 wait Monday for the latest news on the search of the missing jetliner. (Trisnadi Marjan/AP)

"We've been here for two days but the information is unclear. That's all we need."

Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea have sent ships and aircraft to join the search.

In a statement on its website, China's Defence Ministry said it had sent a warship to the South China Sea and planes "have begun preparatory work" for search operations.

Soelistyo said Indonesia might not have the best technology to search underwater and had accepted offers of help from Britain and France.

The U.S. State Department said Monday that Indonesia has asked for help in locating a missing AirAsia jet, and the Pentagon said it could include detection equipment deployed by air, surface and sub-surface.

The Pentagon's press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said in a brief statement that details are still being co-ordinated.

Flight QZ8501 was travelling at 32,000 feet (9,753 metres) and had asked to fly at 38,000 feet (11,582 metres) to avoid clouds.

Permission was not given at the time due to traffic in the area. Five minutes later, at 6.17 a.m. local time on Sunday, the plane lost contact with air traffic control, transport officials said.

Data from Flightradar24.com, which tracks airline flights in real time, showed several nearby aircraft were at altitudes ranging from 34,000 to 36,000 feet (10,363 to 10,973 metres) at the time, levels not unusual for cruising aircraft.

Pilots and aviation experts said thunderstorms, and requests to gain altitude to avoid them, were not unusual in that area.

"The airplane's performance is directly related to the temperature outside and increasing altitude can lead to freezing of the static radar, giving pilots an erroneous radar reading," said a Qantas Airways pilot with 25 years' experience flying in the region.

The resulting danger is that pilots take incorrect action to control the aircraft, said the pilot, who requested anonymity.

The Indonesian pilot of Flight 8501 was experienced and the plane last underwent maintenance in mid-November, the airline said. The aircraft had accumulated about 23,000 flight hours in some 13,600 flights, according to Airbus.

Malaysia AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes flew to Surabaya and, along with Indonesian officials, updated relatives.

"My heart bleeds for all the relatives of my crew and our passengers. Nothing is more important to us," he said on Twitter.

AirAsia area altitudes graphic

with files from CBC, The Associated Press