By Nate Rawlings
March 13, 2014

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.'”

Roundup

When Smugglers Get Creative

Authorities in Pakistan uncovered a plot to transport heroin inside hollowed-out onions to mask the scent from police dogs. Here’s a look at other unusual techniques adopted by smugglers to move illegal drugs.

Frozen Squid

Police in Peru found frozen squid stuffed with 1,500 lb. (nearly 700 kg) of cocaine in 2004. The squid were discovered in a shipping container bound for Mexico.

The Human Body

A woman tried to smuggle drugs from Colombia to Spain in 2012 by hiding cocaine in her breast implants–but wounds on her chest led airport security to send her for a medical exam.

Pumpkins

A woman arriving at Montreal airport on Halloween last year was carrying in her luggage three pumpkins filled with 4.4 lb. (2 kg) of cocaine.

Shoes

A tip last year led Delhi police to a U.K.-bound batch of hemp shoes with hashish packed into their soles.

Chickens

In 2012, authorities in Lagos caught a Nigerian man trying to smuggle home 5.7 lb. (2.6 kg) of cocaine from Brazil by stuffing the drug inside roasted chickens

DATA

WOMEN IN GOVERNMENT

Women accounted for a record 22% of legislators worldwide last year, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. A snapshot:

57.5%

Rwanda

45%

Sweden

18.6%

U.S.

3.1%

Iran

Conflict’s Young Victims

LEBANON

Feryal Delly, a Syrian refugee, gives water to her 4-year-old son Zacharia on March 9. Zacharia, who suffers from a brain tumor, lives with his family in a rented apartment in Halat, north of Beirut. According to UNICEF, 1.2 million children have fled Syria since its civil war began three years ago. A total of 5.5 million Syrian children, in and outside their country, are estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance.

INDIA

$4.9 BILLION

Amount that politicians are expected to spend on elections in April, according to the Centre for Media Studies, a think tank

VENEZUELA

‘We have faced a coup and neutralized it.’

NICOLAS MADURO, President of Venezuela, speaking to supporters on March 10 against the backdrop of continued antigovernment protests. Maduro has claimed that the demonstrations were part of a U.S.-backed scheme to overthrow his government.

Trending In

+

SACRIFICE

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said he and his Cabinet will take pay cuts of 10% to 20% to reduce the government’s payroll

ANIMALS

Bekily, a 12-year-old ring-tailed lemur at London Zoo, grabbed his keeper’s camera to take a selfie

DICTATORS

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was elected to parliament in stage-managed polls that reportedly saw a 99.97% voter turnout

SNAFUS

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford mistakenly told his Twitter followers to set their clocks back an hour, instead of forward, for daylight saving time

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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

SPONSORED FINANCIAL CONTENT

Read More From TIME

EDIT POST