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After 25 days, plenty of ocean trash, questions, but no sign of Flight 370

Map showing planned search area on April 1, 2014 for Malaysia Airlines flight 370. Source: Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA)
Credit: AMSA

Airlines urge more security, passenger checks
ROB GRIFFITH, Associated Press
ROD McGUIRK, Associated Press


PERTH, Australia (AP) — The Malaysian airliner's disappearance underscores the need for improvements in security, both in tracking aircraft and in screening passengers, the International Air Transport Association said Tuesday.

Investigators, meanwhile, were conducting a forensic examination of the final recorded conversation between ground control and the cockpit of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 before it went missing three weeks ago with 239 people on board, the Malaysian government said.

The examination could shed light on who was in control of the cockpit and will also seek to determine if there was any stress or tension in the voice of whoever was communicating with ground control — crucial factors in an air disaster investigation.

The IATA announced it is creating a task force that will make recommendations by the end of the year on how commercial aircraft can be tracked continuously.

"We cannot let another aircraft simply vanish," said Tony Tyler, the director general of IATA, whose 240 member airlines carry 84 percent of all passengers and cargo worldwide.

Tyler also urged governments to step up the use of passport databases such as the one operated by Interpol to determine if they have been stolen. Most countries including Malaysia don't run passports through Interpol's computer system.

The presence of two men on the Malaysia Airlines flight with stolen passports had raised speculation of a possible terrorist link, but it is now thought they were migrants attempting to get to Europe. Nonetheless, their easy access to the flight "rings alarm bells," Tyler said.

Responding to repeated media requests, Malaysia's government released a transcript of the conversation between the cockpit and air traffic controllers, which showed normal exchanges as the cockpit requested clearance for takeoff, reported it had reached cruising altitude and left Malaysian air space.

"Good night Malaysian three-seven-zero," were the final words received by ground controllers at Kuala Lumpur's international airport at 1:19 a.m. on March 8. On Monday, the government changed its account of the final voice transmission which it had earlier transcribed as "All right, good night."

There was no explanation of why the last words were changed. The conversation was in English, the universal language of aviation.

Malaysia has been criticized for its handling of the search, particularly its communications to the media and families of the passengers. In Tuesday's statement, the government said police and forensic examinations were trying to confirm if the voice in the final conversation belonged to the co-pilot as was earlier believed.

The hunt for Flight 370 has turned up no confirmed sign of the Boeing 777, which vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The search area for the plane has shifted as experts analyzed the plane's limited radar and satellite data, moving from the seas off Vietnam and eventually to several areas west of Australia. The current search zone is a remote 254,000-square kilometer (98,000-square mile) area roughly a 2 ½-hour flight from Perth.

The 11 planes involved in the search Tuesday returned to their base in Perth without any significant sightings, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

Low clouds, rain and choppy seas hampered the search efforts. One aircraft, a Japanese coast guard plane with high-performance radar and infrared cameras, completed just one of its three planned passes over the search area, then turned back because of the conditions. It descended to just 150 meters (500 feet) above the whitecaps at one point, but the crew members still couldn't see anything out the windows.

Some of the aircraft have occasionally dipped even lower above the sea for brief periods, raising concerns of collisions with ships that are crisscrossing the zone.

On Tuesday, Australia deployed an airborne traffic controller to prevent collisions as search planes fly over the Indian Ocean.

An Australian air force E-7A Wedgetail equipped with advanced radar made its first operational flight, AMSA said. Angus Houston, who heads the joint agency coordinating the multinational search effort, said the modified Boeing 737 will monitor the increasingly crowded skies over the remote search zone.

Under normal circumstances, ground-based air traffic controllers use radar and other equipment to track all aircraft in their area of reach and direct planes so they are at different altitudes and distances. This enforced separation — vertical and horizontal — prevents collisions. But the planes searching for Flight 370 are operating over a remote patch of ocean that is hundreds of kilometers (miles) from any air traffic controller.

Houston, a former Australian defense chief, called the search effort the most challenging one he has ever seen. The starting point for any search is the last known position of the vehicle or aircraft, he said.

"In this particular case, the last known position was a long, long way from where the aircraft appears to have gone," he said. "It's very complex, it's very demanding."

"What we really need now is to find debris, wreckage from the aircraft," he said. "This could drag on for a long time."

Items recovered so far were discovered to be flotsam unrelated to the Malaysian plane. Several orange-colored objects spotted by plane Sunday turned out to be fishing equipment.

___

McGuirk reported from Canberra. Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, and Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok contributed to this report.

Michael Pearson and Jim Clancy

CNN

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) -- After more than three weeks, the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has come down to this: a lot of floating rubbish, hundreds of heartbroken relatives and, now, quibbling over words that everyone acknowledges offer no clues into what happened to the doomed plane.

Malaysian authorities on Tuesday released the transcript of radio chatter between air traffic controllers and the plane in the hour or so before it vanished while flying from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing on March 8 with 239 people on board.

And while the transcript offers no clues about the plane's mysterious disappearance, one glaring discrepancy has highlighted criticisms of how Malaysian officials have handled the investigation.

The transcript shows the last voice transmission from the doomed plane was "Good night Malaysian three-seven-zero," not the "All right, good night" transmission authorities had previously used.

That authorities had given such an incorrect version earlier this month and allowed it to stand uncorrected for weeks undermines confidence in the investigation, air accident investigation experts told CNN.

"High criticism is in order at this point," said Mary Schiavo, a CNN aviation analyst and former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Malaysian officials have defended their work. Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein recently said, "History will judge us well."

But Michael Goldfarb, a former chief of staff at the Federal Aviation Administration, said people following the investigation "haven't had a straight, clear word that we can have a lot of fidelity in."

"We have the tragedy of the crash, we have the tragedy of an investigation gone awry and then we have questions about where we go from here," he said.

Search 'could drag on'

And where we go from here is a very big question.

After refocusing their search on Friday to a new patch of Indian Ocean hundreds of miles from where they had been looking, authorities still have yet to find anything definitively linked to Flight 370.

Ten aircraft and nine ships crisscrossed a 46,000-square-mile (120,000-square-kilometer) search zone on Tuesday. As of late Tuesday night, Australian search coordinators had not announced any significant results.

With so many planes in the skies over the search zone, Australia sent an airborne air traffic control plane to guard against accidents.

Australian officials have vowed to keep up the search off their west coast, a search the head of the country's new Joint Agency Coordination Centre warned could take time.

"It's not something that's necessarily going to be resolved in the next two weeks, for example," retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston told reporters Tuesday.

The plane disappeared over the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam, after signing off with Malaysian controllers but before checking in with their counterparts in Vietnam.

Authorities don't know what happened on board after that, but radar and satellite data show the plane turned off course and flew back across Malaysia before turning south over the Indian Ocean.

Based on sophisticated analysis of satellite data, investigators believe it went down in the southern Indian Ocean, but can't pinpoint a precise location.

Source: Plane's turn considered 'criminal act'

A Malaysian government source told CNN on Monday that the airliner's turn off course is being considered a "criminal act," either by one of the pilots or someone else on board.

In a background briefing given to CNN, Malaysian investigators said they believed the plane was "flown by someone with good flying knowledge of the aircraft."

A senior Malaysian government official last week told CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes that authorities have found nothing in days of investigating the two pilots that leads them to any motive, be it political, suicidal or extremist.

More help on the way

An Australian ship carrying U.S. Navy search gear was on the way to the search zone. The ship is carrying a pinger locator designed to listen for the locator beacons attached to the plane's flight data recorder, as well as a submersible capable of scanning the ocean floor for wreckage.

The equipment won't be of any use, however, until searchers are able to find wreckage from the plane to help narrow the search zone.

That's because neither the pinger locator nor the submersible is capable of quickly scanning the enormous area being searched.

Under favorable sea conditions, the pingers can be heard 2 nautical miles away. But high seas, background noise, wreckage or silt can all make pingers harder to detect.

It will take the ship, the Ocean Shield, two more days just to get to the search zone, leaving precious little time to locate the plane's flight data recorders before the batteries on its locator beacon run out.

The batteries are designed to last 30 days. The plane has now been missing for 25.

Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta; Jim Clancy reported from Kuala Lumpur; CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet, Holly Yan KJ Kwon, Barbara Starr, Will Ripley, Richard Quest, Nic Robertson, Sara Sidner, Mitra Mobasherat, Kyung Lah and Yuli Yang also contributed to this report.

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