Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — Two people who traveled on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight under the passports of an Italian and an Austrian citizen appear to have bought their tickets together.
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 new information adds to the mystery that has enveloped the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the passenger jet that disappeared over Southeast Asia early Saturday on its way to Beijing.
Italy and Austria have said that none of their citizens were on board the plane. And officials say the Italian and Austrian whose names were on the passenger manifest both had their passports stolen in Southeast Asia in recent years.
The two tickets booked with China Southern Airlines both start in Kuala Lumpur, flying to Beijing, and then onward to Amsterdam. The Italian passport’s ticket continues to Copenhagen, the Austrian’s to Frankfurt.
Authorities say they are investigating the identities of some of those on board who appear to have issues with their 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.
Altogether 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.
Late Sunday afternoon, Vietnam sent a boat to investigate a “strange object” spotted by a Singaporean search plane in the area, said Hung Nguyen with Vietnamese National Search and Rescue Committee.
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, whenAmerican 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, notably the case of the Italian and Austrian passports.
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.
Another possible explanation for the use of the stolen passports is illegal immigration.
There are previous cases of illegal immigrants using fake passports trying to get into Western countries. And Southeast Asia is known to be a booming market for stolen passports.
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.
Disappearing during cruise
But there is a precedent for a modern jetliner to fall from the sky while “in the cruise” and lay hidden for months, according to CNN aviation correspondent Richard Quest.
On June 1, 2009, Air France flight 447 was en route from Rio De Janeiro to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International Airport when communications ended suddenly from the Airbus A330, another state-of-the-art aircraft.
It took four searches over the course of nearly two years to locate the bulk of flight 447’s wreckage and the majority of the 228 bodies in a mountain range deep under the ocean. It took even longer to find the cause of the disaster.
In May 2011, the aircraft’s voice recorder and flight data recorder were recovered from the ocean floor after an extensive search using miniature submersible vehicles.
It was not until July 2012 that investigators published their report, which blamed the crash on a series of errors by the pilots and a failure to react effectively to technical problems.