March 13, 2014 6:09 AM EDT

Mystery of Malaysian Jet Turns Spotlight On Security Gaps

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was less than an hour into its scheduled trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 when it went missing over the South China Sea. The aircraft, a Boeing 777 carrying 239 passengers and crew, took off at 12:41 a.m. local time; air-traffic controllers lost contact with it around 1:30 a.m. There was no distress signal, nor did the cockpit indicate any problems to controllers.

The disappearance prompted a massive search that by March 12 involved 12 countries. Thirty-nine planes and 42 ships–among them two U.S. destroyers–scanned the region. With 153 Chinese nationals among the passengers on the missing jet, Beijing sent eight vessels and scrambled 10 satellites to look for Flight 370.

Early leads–including oil slicks off the Vietnam coast and debris that appeared from a distance to resemble an aircraft door–turned out to be dead ends, while classified surveillance systems reportedly used by the U.S. to observe flashes worldwide showed no evidence of an explosion. Somehow, a giant airliner seemed to have vanished midflight in one of the most puzzling aviation mysteries in recent memory.

Compounding a sense of bafflement at the apparent disappearance of the airliner was confusion over whether the jet had veered off course when it lost touch with ground control. On March 12, Malaysian authorities said records from military radar showed that the aircraft may have been spotted some 200 miles (320 km) northwest of Penang Island near Malaysia’s west coast at 2:15 a.m. on the night it went missing. But there was no confirmation that the radar blip identified in the records referred to Flight 370. Officials said the data was being shared with international partners to determine if the records showed the missing aircraft.

As investigators considered theories ranging from technical malfunction to pilot error and terrorism, inquiries also exposed major gaps in air-travel security more than 12 years after the Sept. 11 attacks prompted an examination of international norms. A study of passenger records found that at least two people on Flight 370 were carrying stolen passports, one from Austria and one from Italy. Interpol, the international criminal police organization, confirmed that the passports were used by Iranian men who appeared to be traveling to Europe to seek asylum. While subsequent investigations did not link the two men to terrorist activity, Interpol issued a strongly worded statement saying the discovery of the stolen passports should serve as a wake-up call for airport security.

According to the organization, most countries do not regularly cross-check travelers’ documents against its stolen- and lost-travel-document database of over 40 million entries: of the 800 million database searches last year, more than 238 million were conducted by the U.S. The U.K. searched the database more than 140 million times, while the UAE ran over 104 million queries.

It won’t help the families of those presumed lost on Flight 370, but experts said the scrutiny of airline security could prompt changes in international procedures. “Many times these tragedies result in the bureaucracy doing what should be done,” said Douglas Laird, who served as security director for Northwest Airlines after a career in the U.S. Secret Service. “My hope would be that this latest tragedy might result in the world saying, ‘Wait a minute. This whole passport thing is like Swiss cheese. We need to do something about it.'”


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This appears in the March 24, 2014 issue of TIME.

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