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Confusion Reigns In Search For Missing Airliner

There are lots of questions about Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 — and lots of seemingly contradictory answers.
Wong Maye-E
There are lots of questions about Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 — and lots of seemingly contradictory answers.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared Saturday. Five days later, there's no word about what happened to it or the 239 people on board.

What has emerged, however, is a pattern of contradictory and erroneous information from Malaysian authorities that has angered families of the passengers and irked the country's neighbors.

But, says Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot who runs the popular Ask The Pilot website, such contradictions are "somewhat common," given how many entities, countries and statements are involved. There can be language problems, he says, as well as terminology issues.

"In the attempt to simplify the confusing vernacular of aviation, the messages get garbled," says Smith, the author of Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel.

Here are some examples of contradictions and erroneous facts in Malaysia:

-- When Contact Was Lost: On Saturday, Malaysia Airlines said Flight MH370 disappeared from radar at 2:40 a.m. On Sunday, after six statements the previous day, the airline said the plane was last heard from at 1:30 a.m.

-- Stolen Passports And Off-Loaded Luggage: Also Saturday, it emerged that two men listed as passengers on the flight — an Austrian and an Italian — weren't on the plane. News reports said their passports had been stolen in Thailand. Malaysia's government then said it knew of the reports, and it then raised the number of people traveling on the flight with false passports to four. It later revised that number to two.

Both of these travel documents used to board the flight were on Interpol's list of stolen passports, and the agency expressed frustration that passports weren't checked against its database. A Malaysian official responded that this is difficult to do because there are millions of names on the list.

On Monday, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, the head of Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation, said five passengers never made it on the flight, and their luggage was off-loaded before Flight 370 took off. That statement turned out to be wrong. It emerged, instead, that four passengers who bought tickets never checked in.

-- Identities: At a news conference Monday, Azharuddin said the two passengers who were using false passports were "not Asian-looking males," contradicting his country's home minister who previously said they were. When pressed by a reporter what the two men looked like "roughly," Azharuddin replied: like Mario Balotelli.

This is what Balotelli looks like.

AC Milan forward Mario Balotelli
Antonio Calanni / AP
AC Milan forward Mario Balotelli

This is what the men who boarded the flight using false passports looked like:

Pictures of the two Iranians — 19-year old Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad (left) and 29-year-old Delavar Seyedmohammaderza.
Wong Maye-E / AP
Pictures of the two Iranians — 19-year old Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad (left) and 29-year-old Delavar Seyedmohammaderza.

The men, it turned out, were Iranian. But the images released by police had one other thing in common: their lower halves were identical. On Wednesday, Malaysian authorities denied that they had doctored the photographs, saying it was a photocopying error.

-- Location: The plane went missing over the Gulf of Thailand, and that's where the search was initially targeted. A day later, Malaysia's air force said the plane may have turned around before it disappeared.

Malaysia Airlines said Tuesday the search was now focused on the west of the Malay Peninsula. Indeed, it was expanded to the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. But Azharuddin said that didn't mean that officials believed the plane was off the western coast. He said the search was taking place on both sides.

Also Tuesday, a local newspaper quoted Malaysia's air force chief as saying a military radar had detected the plane at 2:40 a.m. in the Strait of Malacca. On Wednesday, he denied making those comments, but said the military hadn't ruled out the possibility that the plane turned back.

Who's To Blame?

One reason for so much confusion is that this story is fast-changing.

"In a dynamic situation like this, there's opportunity for misinformation," says Anthony Brickhouse, a trained air safety investigator who has worked at the National Transportation Safety Board and is now an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

He says it's not anybody's fault.

In addition, responsibility for a crash investigation lies with the country where the wreckage is found. In this case, there is no wreckage, making jurisdictional oversight difficult to establish. Under international treaties, if the wreckage is found in international waters, the state where the airline is registered — in this case Malaysia — is in charge of the investigation.

"This is a special case," he says. "Usually, within a few hours or days, you have some evidence. With this situation, because we don't know where the plane is, there's more confusion, and it's hard to say how it's going to play out."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.