Confusion and Anger as Search for Malaysia Air 370 Is Muddled by Poor Information

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International search committees have spent five days looking for the still-missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which lost contact with ground control around forty minutes after leaving  Kuala Lumpur for Beijing, and all they have to show for it is a number of false starts and mounting confusion over where things went wrong.

Initially, authorities suspected that oil slicks in the ocean near Vietnam could have belonged to the missing plane, but that theory was dismissed after testing showed it was left by a ship. Soon after, the notion that terrorists and had sabotaged the flight was dulled by the discovery that at least one of the two passengers who had boarded the flight with stolen passports was likely seeking asylum.

Officials answer questions. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Yesterday, it seemed officials were banking on reports from Malaysia's military that the plane turned around and reached the busy Malacca Strait, taking it hundreds of miles off course. A local paper quoted Malaysia's air force chief Gen. Rodzali Daud as saying that military radar determined that the plane changed course and flew roughly 1,000 feet lower than it had previously. The paper reported that he claimed the plane was last detected by the military by the island of Pulau Perak, at the end of the Strait of Malacca, roughly two hours after takeoff.

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Later that day, however, Daud denied some of what the paper had reported, offering the inconclusive alternative that "it would not be appropriate” to reach conclusions before the investigation is complete. The military took some flack for holding onto the information for so long, and it seems Daud may have been walking back the statement to protect the army, as both Reuters and AP cited other sources who aligned with his early statement (the plane was off course.) 

Now officials are reporting that the last communication received from MH370 before it disappeared was "All right, roger that" in response to a message from ground control, returning investigator to original idea that whatever happened, came without warning. 

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Meanwhile, other sources agree that the plane changed course, but offer conflicting accounts of where it may have been headed. A spokesman for the office of the Malaysian Prime Minister told the New York Times that military officials said the plane may have turned around, but did not offer other details. And Malaysia Airlines said that the plane could have actually been headed to Subang, an airport outside of Kuala Lumpur, perhaps in an attempt to make an emergency landing.

Other details of what happened are spotty. Malaysia Airlines initially stated that five passengers had failed to show up for the flight and their baggage was removed from the plane, but that report was later denied by Malaysia's police chief. Later, Malaysia Airlines said that what actually happened was that four passengers did not show up for the flight, but had not checked any baggage.

As can be imagined, the shoddy handling of the information coming out of the investigation is prompting anger among those desperate for news of loved ones. The New York Times reports

Most of the aircraft’s 227 passengers were Chinese, and the new account prompted an outpouring of anger on Chinese social media sites. “Malaysia, how could you hide something this big until now?” said one posting on Weibo, a service similar to Twitter.  On Wednesday, The Global Times, a widely read Chinese tabloid, said that “information issued publicly from Malaysia had been extraordinarily chaotic.” David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Flightglobal, a news and data service for the aviation sector, said the Malaysian government seemed evasive and confused, and he questioned why, if the remarks attributed to General Daud were true, the government took so long to reveal evidence about a westward flight path.

The stalled process is also starting to grate on the global leaders. Vietnam scaled back search efforts for a few days as confusion continued over where it was best to look for the plane, and tensions were high in a meeting between Malaysian and Chinese diplomats over the search. Yesterday, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry said "We want Malaysia to work harder and speed up efforts on behalf of the families."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.