Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: Many Questions, No Answers on Missing Plane

Mystery still envelops the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the passenger jet missing in Southeast Asia since early Saturday.

Malaysia-Air-Families

A crying woman is escorted to a bus for relatives at the Beijing Airport, as fears mounted over the fate of the 239 people aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines jet. (Credit: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Malaysian military officials said Sunday that the plane might have turned back before it disappeared. Authorities are investigating the identities of some of those on board who appear to have been traveling with stolen passports.

But for the anguished family members of the 239 people on board the Boeing 777-200ER, the agonizing wait goes on.

Big questions far outweigh the few fragments of information that have emerged about the plane’s disappearance.

What happened to the plane? Why was no distress signal issued? Who exactly was aboard?

The passenger jet, carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members, may have changed course and turned back toward Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian military officials said at a news conference Sunday.

But the pilot appears to have given no signal to authorities that he was turning around, the officials said, attributing the change of course to indications from radar data.

Huge search

Forty ships and 22 planes were scouring a portion of the South China Sea on Sunday for any sign of where the flight, operated by Malaysia’s flagship airline, might have gone down, Malaysian authorities said.

The large, multinational team is focusing its efforts near the Gulf of Thailand, part of the South China Sea that lies between several Southeast Asian countries.

The area in focus, about 90 miles south of Vietnam’s Tho Chu Island, is the same one as where a Vietnamese search plane reportedly spotted oil slicks that stretched between six and nine miles.

Malaysian authorities have not yet confirmed the report of the oil slicks, which came from Vietnam’s official news agency.

As the search continues, relatives of those on board the plane continue to await news of the fate of their loved ones.

Among the passengers, there were 154 people from China or Taiwan; 38 Malaysians, and three U.S. citizens. Five of the passengers were less than 5 years old.

If all those on board the flight are found to have died, it will rank as the deadliest airline disaster since November 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into a New York neighborhood, killing all 260 people on board and five more on the ground.

Passenger manifest questioned

A fuller picture of what happened may not become available until searchers find the plane and its flight data recorder.

“We have not been able to locate anything, see anything,” Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, the director general of civil aviation in Malaysia, told reporters Sunday.

Confusion over who exactly was on the plane has drawn particular attention.

The airline released a list of passengers on the flight that included an Austrian and an Italian. But the governments of those two countries both denied that any of their citizens were on board the missing plane.

More disturbingly, the two people whose names were on the list had both reported their passports stolen in Southeast Asia in recent years, officials said.

The passport mystery raised concerns about the possibility of terrorism, but officials cautioned that it was still too early to arrive at any conclusions.

A U.S. intelligence official said that no link to terrorism had been discovered so far, but that authorities were still investigating.

Interpol database

Malaysian authorities have been in contact with counterterrorism organizations about possible passport issues, Malaysia’s transportation minister Hishamuddin Hussein said.

He didn’t specify how many potential passport issues there were, saying authorities are looking at the whole passenger manifest.

The U.S. government has been briefed on the stolen passports and reviewed the names of the passengers in question but found nothing at this point to indicate foul play, said a U.S. law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Of the two passports in question, the Italian one had been reported stolen and was in Interpol’s database, CNN Law Enforcement Analyst Tom Fuentes said, citing sources at Interpol.

Additionally, no inquiry was made by Malaysia Airlines to determine if any passengers on the flight were traveling on stolen passports, he said. Many airlines do not check the database, he said.

Rahman, the Malaysian aviation official, declined to say whether the airline or Malaysian authorities had checked the database.

The National Transportation Safety Board announced late Saturday that a team of its investigators was en route to Asia to help with the investigation, the agency said.