A plane passenger is lucky to be alive after traffic made him late for the doomed Lion Air flight that crashed in to the sea off Indonesia.

Sony Setiawan, an official in Indonesia's finance ministry was due to be among the 189 people on board flight JT 610 when it took off early from the capital Jakarta on Monday morning.

But he was held up on his commute to Soekarno-Hatta International Airport because of the city's notorious road congestion and never boarded the Boeing-737.

Minutes after takeoff, the plane disappeared from radar before plunging 5,000ft in to the Java Sea. Officials do not expect to find any survivors.

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Sony Setiawan was due to be among the 189 people on board flight JT 610 when it took off early from the capital Jakarta on Monday morning. Image / Local TV
Sony Setiawan was due to be among the 189 people on board flight JT 610 when it took off early from the capital Jakarta on Monday morning. Image / Local TV

Setiawan took a later flight to Pangkal Pinang on another airline. Pictures show him surrounded by journalists after arriving safely today.

The ill-fated Lion Air flight was a journey he and his colleagues caught on a weekly basis.

But while his friends battled their way through Jakarta's daily congestion to make the flight, Sony found himself stuck on a toll road for hours.

A sprawling and haphazardly planned megacity, Jakarta is known for having some of Southeast Asia's worst traffic congestion with lengthy tailbacks and hours-long delays a daily frustrating ritual for commuters.

'I usually take (flight) JT610 - my friends and I always take this plane,' Setiawan told AFP.

'I don't know why the traffic at the toll road was so bad. I usually arrive in Jakarta at 3am but this morning I arrived at the airport at 6:20 and I missed the flight.'

A police officer carries debris recovered from the area where a Lion Air passenger jet is suspected to crash, at Tanjung Priok Port in Jakarta, Indonesia.
A police officer carries debris recovered from the area where a Lion Air passenger jet is suspected to crash, at Tanjung Priok Port in Jakarta, Indonesia.

But Setiawan said any gratitude he felt was tinged with the knowledge so many people, including six of his colleagues, were not so fortunate.

'The first time I heard I cried,' he said. 'I know my friends were on that flight.'

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Setiawan, who is from Bandung in West Java, said he managed to catch a second flight to Pangkal Pinang city and only learned of the crash once he landed safely.

The call he made to his briefly stricken family was filled with emotion.

'My family was in shock and my mother cried, but I told them I was safe, so I just have to be grateful,' he said.

The national search and rescue agency said human remains have been recovered from the crash area. Its director of operations, Bambang Suryo Aji, told a news conference the search effort is focusing on finding bodies, and survivors are not expected.

More than 300 people including soldiers, police and local fishermen were involved in the search that has also recovered ID cards, personal belongings and aircraft debris. At least a dozen ambulances were parked at a nearby beach.

Indonesia's disaster agency posted photos online of a crushed smartphone, books, bags and parts of the aircraft fuselage that had been collected by search and rescue vessels.

President Joko Widodo ordered the transport safety commission to investigate and urged Indonesians to 'keep on praying' as rescuers search for victims.

An air transport official, Novie Riyanto, said the flight was cleared to return to Jakarta after the pilot made a 'return to base' request two to three minutes after taking off. It plunged into the sea about 10 minutes later. Weather conditions were normal but the brand new aircraft had experienced a technical issue on its previous flight.

Lion Air said the jet, on a 1 hour and 10 minute flight to Pangkal Pinang on an island chain off Sumatra, was carrying 181 passengers, including one child and two babies, and eight crew members.

It said there were two foreigners on board the plane: its pilot, originally from New Delhi, and an Italian citizen.

Distraught friends and relatives prayed and hugged each other as they waited at Pangkal Pinang's airport and at a crisis center set up at Jakarta's airport. Indonesian TV broadcast pictures of a fuel slick and debris field in the ocean.

At the search agency's headquarters in Jakarta, family members arrived, hoping desperately for news.

A police officer inspects debris recovered from the area where a Lion Air passenger jet crashed.
A police officer inspects debris recovered from the area where a Lion Air passenger jet crashed.

Feni, who uses a single name, said her soon to be married sister was on the flight, planning to meet relatives in Pangkal Pinang.

'We are here to find any information about my younger sister, her fiance, her in-law to be and a friend of them,' said Feni.

'We don't have any information,' she said, as her father wiped tears from reddened eyes. 'No one provided us with any information that we need. We're confused. We hope that our family is still alive.'

Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani also arrived at the agency and met with its chief, seeking information about 20 ministry staff who were on the flight after attending a ministry event in Jakarta. Photos circulating online showed the distraught minister trying to comfort stunned colleagues.