While the sighting of the slicks is confirmed, there’s still no sign of debris from Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS)’s Flight 370, with 239 people on board, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said today. All the passengers on the flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur are being investigated, with a specific focus on four names, he said without elaborating. The airline said today that it is fearing the worst.
The search for the plane, missing since early yesterday, now encompasses the western coast of Peninsula Malaysia amid speculation the jet may have altered course. The prospect of terrorism arose after Austria and Italy said two passengers used passports stolen from their nationals, both of them men. While nations hunting for the plane had little to go on -- with no distress calls or emergency-beacon signals -- dozens of ships and aircraft were directed to step up the sweep.
“I’m in touch with the international intelligence agencies” on the issue of the passports, Hishammuddin said at a briefing. “At the same time, our own intelligence have been activated and, of course, the counter-terrorism units from all the relevant countries have been informed.”
A team from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is heading to Malaysia to be in place once the wreckage of the Boeing Co. (BA) 777-200 is located. That NTSB team is being joined by experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
There’s closed-circuit television footage of the two people who used the false passports, said Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation. Investigations are following all angles, he said.
“There are only two passengers on record, that flew on this aircraft that have false passports,” said Azharuddin. “We have the CCTV recordings of those passengers from check-in right through the departure point. These records of CCTV are now being used for investigation of this matter.”
Singapore’s air force said it dispatched extra aircraft, including a helicopter. Additional boats have been sent, said Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
Vessels from Vietnam are at the site of the area of the slick, said Dinh Viet Thang, head of country’s search-and-rescue steering committee. Indonesia dispatched one corvette, four fast-patrol boats and a maritime-patrol aircraft to the Malacca Strait, said Untung Suropati, a spokesman. The strait separates the Indonesian Island of Sumatra from Peninsula Malaysia.
The stolen Austrian passport used to board Flight 370 was from a 30-year-old who reported the theft in 2012 in Thailand, while the Italian was Luigi Maraldi, who disclosed the theft of his documents in August, according to the countries’ foreign ministries. Neither man was on the jet, their governments said.
The missing plane was a code-share service with China Southern Airlines Co (1055), which said it sold seven tickets on the flight, including to people of Austrian and Italian nationality, according to the company’s microblog. When asked about the two passengers who boarded with stolen passports, Chairman Si Xianmin told reporters in Beijing: “The key is with border control and immigration departments on the ground.”
Flight 370 departed the Malaysian capital at about 12:41 a.m. local time yesterday and was scheduled to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. Security screening was performed as normal at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd. (MAHB) said.
On board the twin-engine wide-body were 227 passengers and 12 crew members, with Chinese travelers -- 153, including an infant -- accounting for the largest group of nationals, the airline said. Also on the plane were three U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is monitoring the situation.
China and the U.S. are also assisting Malaysia, with the destroyer Pinckney from the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet among vessels in the hunt. President Barack Obama was briefed while on a weekend family vacation in Key Largo, Florida, said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman.
While Muslim-majority Malaysia hasn’t seen any recent major terrorist attacks on home soil, it has been used a transit and planning hub, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. State Department. China, the destination of the plane, has occasionally suffered what it calls terrorist attacks committed by Uighurs, a predominately Muslim ethnic group from the Xinjiang region of the country’s northwest.
If terrorism was involved, a watery grave for the plane may not be a coincidence, said consultant Magaw, who formerly was director of the U.S. Secret Service and led the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as the Transportation Security Administration. Bringing down a jet at sea helps obscure any evidence, he said.
Malaysia immigration officers check foreign passports with biometric features by swiping outbound travelers’ documents to see details of their histories and check thumbprints and faces against on-screen photo identifications, said an immigration official at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
When the system isn’t working, is slow or freezes, officers enter passport details manually to verify a traveler without taking a thumbprint, said the official, who asked not to be identified because of a lack of authorization to speak publicly.
Information is keyed in manually for passports without the biometric enhancements, the official said. Outbound visitors’ passports also are checked to ensure that they show stamps proving entry into Malaysia, said the official, who was commenting on procedures in general, not Flight 370.
Malaysia’s last communication with the jet, just before a handoff to Vietnamese authorities, was “normal,” according to Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director-general of the Department of Civil Aviation. Contact was lost a minute before the plane entered Vietnam’s airspace, its government said on its website.
The plane disappeared from Malaysian radar at 1:30 a.m. The carrier said the last radar contact with the plane was about 120 nautical miles east of Kota Bahru, near the South China Sea.
FlightAware, a Houston-based compiler of global air-traffic information, gave the jet’s last known altitude as 35,000 feet, as it flew a northeasterly course at 539 mph. Such an airspeed and altitude would be typical of a 777 in cruise mode.
Cox said he was unaware of any reports of such wreckage. A plane descending intact after an inflight emergency, whether caused by mechanical failure or pilot error, would leave less surface debris and be harder to spot, he said. In those cases, the crew typically would have time to radio a distress call.
Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and First Officer Fariq Ab. Hamid, 27, were the pilots, according to an airline statement. The captain had 18,365 flying hours and joined the company in 1981, while his first officer had 2,763 hours of flying. The first officer joined the Subang Jaya-based airline in 2007.
Boeing’s 777 has been involved in only three accidents serious enough to destroy a plane. The only fatalities occurred in last year’s Asiana Airlines Inc. crash in San Francisco, where investigators have focused on pilot error. The Chicago-based company is assembling a team to provide technical aid.
To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Chong Pooi Koon in Kuala Lumpur email@example.com; Alan Levin in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anand Krishnamoorthy email@example.com Jake Lloyd-Smith