Two people listed as being on a missing Malaysian Airlines jet weren’t on the flight, and their passports had been stolen in Thailand, authorities and family members said Saturday.
The search for the plane, which disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, centered on waters off Vietnam after Hanoi said it had spotted what appeared to be large oil slicks.
Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, with 239 people aboard, lost contact with the airline shortly into the flight early Saturday. Government and airline officials said they weren’t ready to speculate about what caused the Boeing 777-200 to disappear from radar sometime after it flew away from peninsular Malaysia’s east coast. Aviation analysts noted that accidents at cruising altitude over water were rare.
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One passenger was traveling with a stolen Austrian passport, Austria’s Foreign Ministry said Saturday. A 30-year-old Austrian whose name was on the passenger list for the flight wasn’t on board. His passport was stolen in Thailand in 2012, a ministry spokesman said, confirming a report in German newspaper Die Welt.
Another passenger on the list, Italian Luigi Maraldi, was also not on the plane, Italy’s Foreign Ministry said Saturday. Mr. Maraldi’s passport was stolen in Thailand a year and a half ago, his father said.
One European security official said it wasn’t uncommon for passengers to board flights using stolen passports.
Vietnam’s government said late Saturday it was dispatching vessels to where its aircraft had spotted what appeared to be two oil slicks that might be from the plane, 90 miles south of Tho Chu island off the Vietnamese coast.
“It’s very likely that this is a sign of the missing plane,” Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of staff of Vietnam’s armed forces, told reporters.
The search effort Saturday included aircraft and vessels from Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines. The U.S. Navy said it was sending surveillance aircraft from a base in Japan and a destroyer that had been conducting training and maritime-security operations in the South China Sea.
Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told a news conference that the airline lost contact with Flight MH370 between Malaysian and Vietnamese airspace and that there were no reports of bad weather along the route. Mr. Ahmad said the missing plane didn’t send a distress signal and had enough fuel to fly an extra two hours.
Malaysian Airlines first published word that contact with the plane had been lost about one hour after the flight was scheduled to land at daybreak Saturday in Beijing.
Malaysian authorities weren’t ruling out any possibilities as they worked to determine what happened to the plane, the director-general of the country’s Civil Aviation Department said. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the search would continue for “as long as it takes.”
It is very rare for an aircraft to suffer a “catastrophic event” at cruising altitude over water, one analyst said Saturday. For today’s jets, the cruise portion of flights is considered to pose significantly fewer potential hazards than approach and landing.
Jonathan Galaviz, a partner with Global Market Advisors, an aviation and leisure consulting firm, said that while such accidents are “absolutely rare,” they are also the most difficult in terms of locating wreckage and cockpit voice and flight-data recorders.
He said the emphasis over the next 48 to 72 hours would likely be on search and rescue efforts. Then, sophisticated sonar equipment could be required to locate the airplane’s recorders, if indeed it went down over water, he said.
Shukor Yusof, an aviation analyst at Standard & Poor’s, likened the incident to the 2009 crash over the Atlantic Ocean of an Air France jetliner en route from Brazil to France, which killed all 228 people on board. “The wreckage for that aircraft wasn’t recovered or rather salvaged until almost two years after,” Mr. Yusof said. “It shows the tremendous challenge involving search and rescue operations where they happen in the sea.”
Malaysia Airlines’ Mr. Ahmad said Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the 53-year-old captain of the missing plane, had 18,365 hours of experience and joined the airline in 1981. His 27-year-old deputy has more than 2,700 hours of flying experience.
Malaysia Airlines hasn’t had any fatal accidents for the better part of two decades. In September 1995, a Malaysia Airlines Fokker 50 crashed in Tawau, Sabah, killing 34. The deadliest incident involving the airline was a December 1977 crash of a Boeing 737-200 jet in southern Johor state after an apparent hijacking attempt, killing all 100 on board.
Malaysia Airlines took delivery of its first 777-200 in 1997 and is evaluating new Boeing Co. and Airbus Group jetliners to replace the aging 777s in its fleet with newer, more-efficient models.