An AirAsia passenger jet carrying 162 people lost contact with Indonesian air traffic control early Sunday, gripping Southeast Asia with a second missing plane crisis in less than a year.

The search operation for the missing AirAsia Flight QZ8501 has been halted for the night, but big ships won't return to shore and will leave their searchlights on, according to the Indonesian Transportation Ministry.

Before communication was lost, one of the pilots asked to fly at a higher altitude because of bad weather, officials said.

The aircraft, flying from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore, went missing as it flew at 38,000 feet over the Java Sea between the islands of Belitung and Borneo -- a heavily traveled shipping channel with shallow waters, according to Indonesian authorities, who are leading the search and rescue operations.

AirAsia says it lost contact with the aircraft at 7:24 local time.

Of the people on board the Airbus A320-200, 155 are Indonesian, three are South Korean, one is British, one is French, one is Malaysian and one is Singaporean, the airline said.

Seventeen children, including one infant, are among the passengers, the carrier said. Seven of the people on board are crew members.

At the airport in Surabaya, loved ones gathered and wept as they waited for any word on the passengers.

Some took cell phone pictures of a flight manifest posted on a wall. The black-and-white papers showed every passenger's name and seat number, but not their fate.

Others simply sat and dabbed tears from their eyes.

"Our concern right now is for the the relatives and the next of kin," AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes said during a press conference in Surabaya. He confirmed that storm clouds caused the pilot to ask for a change in flight plan, but added, "We don't want to speculate whether weather was a factor. We really don't know." Once the aircraft is found, there will be a proper investigation, Fernandes said.

As word spread of the missing plane, the airline changed the color of its logo on its website and social media accounts from red to gray.

Pope Francis prayed for the missing, according to Vatican Radio.