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Slipshod probe into jet’s disappearance leaves vital questions unanswered

What investigators know about the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 seems to change by the minute, as Malaysian leaders offer “facts” that are superseded by newer “facts.” But the fundamental fact is that the loss of the Boeing 777 represents an urgent matter with potentially disastrous implications. The search for the plane needs to be an all-out effort with nations offering all relevant information and assistance possible.

The plane, which vanished from tracking systems 10 days ago during a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, was apparently diverted purposely to a different route, likely over the Indian Ocean. Assuming that to be the case, the possibilities are that the plane crashed, probably in the ocean, or that it was secretly landed somewhere to serve some future purpose. Either should set off alarms.

If the plane was diverted, either by a passenger or crew member, that qualifies as a hijacking. Given what we have learned about the ability of terrorists to use aircraft as missiles, it is necessary to know how that was accomplished. If it was a crew member, do airlines need to stiffen their screening process? If it was a passenger, how did he or she defeat the security measures put in place on airplanes since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001?

And while it seems unlikely that the plane was secretly landed somewhere, that would represent an even more urgent problem, because it would leave a long-distance airliner in the hands of one or more people with motives that would have to be considered threatening.

Most expert opinion seems to be that the plane is at the bottom of the ocean, in part because the alternative is so unlikely. It would not be easy for a civilian jet simply to fly under the radar all the way to a landing strip and, even if it did, it would require a runway more than a mile long. It would be nearly impossible to bring a hijacked jet onto one of those undetected.

The investigation might be further along had Malaysia accepted offers of help from the United States and other countries sooner. That could have provided some answers to the families and friends, now in their 10th day of private terror, of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members.

It is possible that these questions may never be answered. But it is worth the effort for the families, for the flying public and for the safety of those who live in areas where terrorists are known to strike.

There is precedent for a long-term search. It took almost two years to recover most of the wreckage and bodies of an Air France flight that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. The voice and data recorders were ultimately found, but not until May 2011. This could be a long effort.

The crash also lends weight to those who call for a change in how airplanes are tracked, from a radar-based system to one based on satellite tracking. The change would be complicated and expensive, but it would allow airplanes to be better tracked wherever they are.