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Final Word from Jet Came After Systems Shutdown

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- The final words from the missing Malaysian jetliner's cockpit gave no indication anything was wrong even though one of the plane's communications systems had already been disabled, officials said Sunday, adding to suspicions that one or both of the pilots were involved in the disappearance.

As authorities examined a flight simulator that was confiscated from the home of one of the pilots and dug through the background of all 239 people on board and the ground crew that serviced the plane, they also were grappling with the enormity of the search ahead of them, warning they needed more data to narrow down the hunt for the aircraft.

The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 took off from Kuala Lumpur at around 12:40 a.m. on March 8, headed to Beijing. On Saturday, Malaysia's government confirmed that the plane was deliberately diverted and may have flown as far north as Central Asia, or south into the vast reaches of the Indian Ocean.

Authorities have said someone on board the plane first disabled one of its communications systems - the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS - at 1:07 a.m. Around 14 minutes later, the transponder, which identifies the plane to commercial radar systems, was also shut down. The fact that they went dark separately is strong evidence that the plane's disappearance was deliberate.

On Sunday, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a news conference that that the final, reassuring words from the cockpit - "All right, good night" - were spoken to air traffic controllers after the ACARS system was shut down. Whoever spoke did not mention any trouble on board, seemingly misleading ground control.

Air force Maj. Gen. Affendi Buang told reporters he did not know whether it was the pilot or co-pilot who spoke to air traffic controllers.

Given the expanse of land and water that might need to be searched, the wreckage of the plane might take months - or longer - to find, or might never be located. Establishing what happened with any degree of certainty will likely need key information, including cockpit voice recordings, from the plane's flight data recorders.

The search area now includes 11 countries the plane might have flown over, Hishammuddin said, adding that the number of countries involved in the operation had increased from 14 to 25.

"The search was already a highly complex, multinational effort. It has now become even more difficult," he said.

The search effort initially focused on the relatively shallow waters of the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, where the plane was first thought to be. Hishammuddin said he had asked governments to hand over sensitive radar and satellite data to try and help get a better idea of the plane's final movements.

"It is our hope with the new information, parties that can come forward and narrow the search to an area that is more feasible," he said.

Malaysia is leading the multinational search for the plane, as well as the investigation into its disappearance.

In the United States, Dan Pfeiffer, senior adviser to President Barack Obama, told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the FBI was supporting the criminal probe.

Rep. Peter King, who is chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, said on ABC's "This Week" that so far "there's nothing out there indicating it's terrorists."

Investigators are trying to answer these questions: If the two pilots were involved in the disappearance, were they working together or alone, or with one or more of the passengers or crew? Did they fly the plane under duress or of their own volition? Did one or more of the passengers manage to break into the cockpit, or use the threat of violence to gain entry and then pilot the plane? And what possible motive could there be for flying off with the plane?

Malaysia's police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar, said he requested countries with citizens on board the plane to investigate their background, no doubt looking for any ties to terrorist groups, aviation skills or evidence of prior contact with the pilots. He said that the intelligence agencies of some countries had already done this and found nothing suspicious, but that he was waiting for others to respond.

The government said police searched the homes of both pilots on Saturday, the first time they had done so since the plane went missing. Asked why it took them so long, Khalid said authorities "didn't see the necessity in the early stages."

Khalid said police confiscated the elaborate flight simulator that one of the pilots, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had built in his home and reassembled it in their offices to study it for clues.

Zaharie, 53, who has three grown children and one grandchild, had previously posted photos online of the simulator, which was made with three large computer monitors and other accessories. Earlier this week, the head of Malaysia Airlines said this was not in itself cause for any suspicion.

Malaysian police are also investigating engineers and ground staff who may have had contact with the plane before it took off, Khalid said.

ACARS is used to send information about the plane's engines and other parts to the airline. Even though it was disabled on Flight 370, it continued to send out faint hourly pulses that were recorded by a satellite. The last "ping" was sent out at 8:11 a.m. - 7 hours and 31 minutes after the plane took off. It placed the jet somewhere in a huge arc as far north as Kazakhstan in Central Asia or far into the southern Indian Ocean.

While many people believe the plane has crashed, there is a very small possibility it may have landed somewhere and be relatively intact. Affendi, the air force general, and Hishammuddin, the defense minister, said it was possible for the plane to "ping" when it was on the ground if its electrical systems were undamaged.

Australia said it was sending one of its two AP-3C Orion aircraft involved in the search to remote islands in the Indian Ocean at Malaysia's request. The plane will search the north and west of the Cocos Islands, a remote Australian territory with an airstrip about 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) southwest of Indonesia, military chief Gen. David Hurley said.

Given that the northern route the plane may have taken would take it over countries with busy airspace, most experts say the person in control of the aircraft would more likely have chosen the southern route. The southern Indian Ocean is the world's third-deepest and one of the most remote stretches of water in the world, with little radar coverage.

Malaysian officials and aviation experts said that whoever disabled the plane's communication systems and then flew the jet must have had a high degree of technical knowledge and flying experience, putting one or both of the pilots high on the list of possible suspects.

Zaharie, the pilot, was a supporter of a Malaysian opposition political party that is locked in a bitter dispute with the government, according to postings on his Facebook page and a friend, Peter Chong, who is a party member.

Chong said that he last saw Zaharie a week before the pilot left on the flight for Beijing, and that they had agreed to meet on his return to organize a shopping trip for poor children.

"If I am on a flight, I would choose Captain Zaharie," he said. "He is dedicated to his job, he is a professional and he loves flying."

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NEW YORK (AP) -- The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has exposed wide gaps in how the world's airlines - and their regulators - operate. But experts warn this isn't likely to be one of those defining moments that lead to fundamental changes.

For financial and technological reasons, and because of issues tied to national sovereignty, the status quo is expected to prevail in the way passports are checked, aircraft are tracked at sea and searches are coordinated.

In an age of constant connectedness, it's almost inconceivable to lose a 209-foot-long airplane for more than a week, or be in the dark about what happened onboard around the time it went missing.

The reality is that large portions of the globe don't have radar coverage. Over oceans, pilots fill in those gaps by radioing air traffic controllers at routine intervals with position updates. And while planes record sounds in the cockpit as well as speed, altitude, fuel flow and the positions of flaps, that information isn't shared with anyone on the ground. Crash investigators only get access to the data on the recorders after combing through the wreckage.

Numerous experts have said it is time to update tracking abilities and use satellite links to provide real-time feeds on the operation of planes and conversations within the cockpit.

However, transmitting data by satellite from all 80,000 daily flights worldwide wouldn't be cheap.

Airlines made an average of $4.13 in profits per passenger last year and $2.05 in 2012, according to International Air Transport Association, the industry's trade group. Any additional costs would eat into those slim profit margins. Some experts say planes don't crash frequently enough - let alone disappear - to justify the cost.

If such information were to be streamed live, there would be major concerns about privacy says Robert Clifford, a personal injury lawyer in Chicago who has been involved in several aviation lawsuits.

"Once it's broadcast, the data from a plane would essentially be considered public access material - something that aircraft manufacturers, pilot unions, operators and even accident investigators don't want," Clifford says.

There's also a question of who would receive and control that data. There are concerns that an airline, plane maker or government worried about its reputation could meddle with the information.

"You can't assume that there would not be strong economic interests to tamper with information," says James E. Hall, former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

A compromise solution is to create deployable black boxes - data recorders similar to the voice and data recorders currently in planes. During a catastrophic event, they would break away from the tail, have their own homing devices and ideally be found quickly. But given the confusion over the Malaysia Airlines jet's flight path, it's unclear if these boxes could help.

Then there's the search: The Malaysian government has been widely criticized for how long the search has taken and for its release of contradictory information.

So why aren't American investigators, who have a long history of dealing with plane crashes, taking charge? NTSB investigators and experts from Boeing are on the scene providing technical assistance. So are U.S. military ships and planes. But politics and customs dictate that everybody takes a back seat to the local government.

The practice dates back to a December 1944 convention on international civil aviation in Chicago. Many of today's rules of the sky were formed at that meeting, including one that puts the country where a crash occurs in charge of the search and investigation. If the airplane is registered in another country - which isn't the case here - that government is entitled to appoint observers to be present at the inquiry.

Hall, the former NTSB chairman who now heads the law firm Hall & Associates, says it is time for the International Civil Aviation Organization - part of the United Nations - to set up an international team of investigation professionals.

"We can't permit a situation to continue where we don't have competent, independent people in charge of an investigation from day one," Hall says.

However, Kenneth J. Button, director of the Center for Transportation, Policy, Operations and Logistics at George Mason University, notes that even U.S. investigators have made mistakes in past disasters. Further, he can't imagine countries such as the U.S. ceding the investigatory powers they currently have to some international group.

"I think the Malaysian authorities may be unfairly blamed for a little of this," Button says. "They're getting a lot of information in and are handling it as best they can. Similar issues have arisen in most other countries."

Flight 370's disappearance also uncovered another lapse: passenger passports were not checked against Interpol's database of 40 million stolen or lost travel documents. The fact is, most countries don't run passports through the international policy agency's computer system.

"It is not extremely unusual," says Rafi Ron, a former chief of security at Tel Aviv's airport and now head of New Age Security Solutions. To run the checks, countries would have to update software and link computer systems. "We've left a substantial loophole. There is only one thing behind it: cost."

Without a computer link, it is hard to tell if a passport is stolen or a counterfeit. Ticket and gate agents don't have much training is spotting fakes.

"Airline personnel only glance at the name to see that it matches the boarding pass and that the person presenting the passport looks similar to the person in front of them," says Douglas R. Laird, former director of security at Northwest Airlines and now head of Laird & Associates, Inc. "With a long line of folks this becomes a real issue. They need to board the plane as soon as possible."

 

Associated Press writers Ian Mader and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur and Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.

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