‘Trying To Make Sense’ Of Malaysian Jetliner’s Disappearance

March 09, 2014

Another day of frantic searching has failed to uncover the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, as ships and aircraft combed over parts of the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea where the jetliner is suspected of crashing with 239 people aboard. And officials now say the plane may have diverted its path, perhaps in an attempt to turn back.

The flight's disappearance is a mystery that was deepened by revelations Saturday that two of the plane's passengers appeared to have used stolen passports to travel. And on Sunday, Malaysian transportation and military officials said that if radar data that indicate a change of course is accurate, the search area would need to be adjusted.

The most recent inspection of the Boeing 777-200 was performed 10 days ago and didn't turn up any problems, Malaysia Airlines officials say. And from all accounts, the weather during the flight isn't seen as being a problem, either.

There have been hints that a discovery of the plane might be imminent, from a reported sighting of twin oil slicks by Vietnamese military search planes Saturday to a photograph circulating on social media in China Sunday that purports to be debris from the jet seen from the window of another Malaysia Airlines flight traveling from Beijing to Kuala Lampur – the opposite route of the missing flight. But an official sighting has not confirmed the plane's location.

"We are trying to make sense of this," Malaysian Air force chief Rodzali Daud told a news conference today, according to the AP. "The military radar indicated that the aircraft may have made a turn back and in some parts, this was corroborated by civilian radar."

If the flight did diverge from its planned route, the pilots would have informed air traffic controllers, said Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya.

"From what we have, there was no such distress signal or distress call per say, so we are equally puzzled," he said.

More than half of the flight's passengers were Chinese citizens. Many of their loved ones have gathered at a hotel in Beijing, awaiting word of the jetliner's fate and preparing themselves for the worst. They have grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of news. And on Sunday, they released a joint statement to media, calling for answers from the airline and government officials.

U.S. agencies are moving to help with the search and investigation, with the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board saying they're sending experts to offer their assistance. As explained by the NTSB, international protocols will determine who leads the investigation once the plane is located.

Officials caution that it's far too early to speculate on a possible cause for the flight's troubles. That didn't stop speculation about a possible terrorist plot, fueled by news that two men – an Italian and an Austrian – who had initially been listed on the flight were in fact alive and well. Their passports had been stolen in Thailand in recent years, as we reported yesterday.

And Sunday, several media outlets report that the two people who used those passports got their tickets at the same time.

From CNN:

"The tickets were bought from China Southern Airlines in Thai baht at identical prices, according to China's official e-ticket verification system Travelsky. The ticket numbers are contiguous, which indicates the tickets were issued together."

The network goes on to say that the tickets secured travel from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, "and then onward to Amsterdam. The Italian passport's ticket continues to Copenhagen, the Austrian's to Frankfurt."

Investigators are reviewing surveillance camera footage to learn more about the two passengers.

But travelers using a stolen passport isn't as unusual as it might seem, The Wall Street Journal reports.

"A European security official said it wasn't uncommon for passengers to board flights using stolen passports. In addition, Beijing has emerged as a bustling transit hub in recent years, providing connecting flights to Europe and elsewhere from other parts of Asia, buoyed in part by a 72-hour visa-on-arrival program."

More details are emerging about the passengers, including the news that 20 employees of Freescale Semiconductor, a company based in Austin, were on board. The company says 12 of its workers who were on the plane are from Malaysia; 8 are from China.

Story source: NPR