The dearth of information about the vanished Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has had a predictable consequence. Conspiracy theories about the fate of the aircraft and its 239 passengers and crew abound. So, too, does amazement that the Boeing 777 flight, which left Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing in the early hours of March 8, could simply disappear. For the families of those on board, the pain goes on and on. Understandably, China, the home of two-thirds of the passengers, is becoming increasingly critical of the Malaysian Government.
Who, though, would want to be in its shoes? At the outset, this must have appeared to be simply another case of catastrophic structural failure or pilot error. Malaysia would have been confident that it could handle it without the need for the intrusion of international experts.
Search efforts were concentrated in the South China Sea, and it must have seemed only a matter of time before wreckage would confirm the airliner's fate.
On Saturday, however, everything changed. Malaysia's Prime Minister, Najob Razak, announced that someone had deliberately diverted the airliner and shut down communications with the ground. The strong suggestion was that the plane may have flown as far north as Central Asia or south into the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean. This announcement was made almost a week after the flight left Kuala Lumpur. There seems no good reason why. The information was, after all, based in large part on the disabling of the plane's Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System about 40 minutes after takeoff, and the shutting down of its transponder, which identifies the airliner to commercial radar systems, about 14 minutes later.
The Malaysians say in their defence that they want to release only fully corroborated reports. That may be adequate in normal circumstances. But this is an unprecedented situation of huge interest worldwide. The suspicion is that information has been deliberately withheld, and is being released only when international pressure dictates a response. Much of that has come from China through the Government's Xinhua News Agency, which has described Malaysia's information as "painfully belated". It said: "Given today's technology, the delay smacks of either dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information in a full and timely manner." Saturday's announcement, which raised as many questions as it answered, undermined Malaysia's talk of definitive statements and added substance to China's concern about the sharing of information.As of now, the investigation into what has happened to MH370 is based on four theories. Those who took control of the airliner were either hijackers or saboteurs, or someone with a personal vendetta or a psychological problem. The greatest worry is that we may never know. Malaysia's initial search area and the failure to immediately call in top international experts means valuable time has been lost. This may have been crucial in the location of wreckage, especially if the aircraft has come down in the Indian Ocean. It might never be found, and we will not learn what happened from its cockpit voice recordings and flight-data recorders.
If so, there will be an odd legacy. We will all have a far greater knowledge of the workings of airliners. Transponders and Acars are now familiar to us, and we know about the hourly pings that planes emit. But we will also know that all this, and other technology, did not stop a Boeing 777 - an aircraft almost 64m in length - from simply vanishing. The Malaysian defence system, in particular, was found wanting. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre raised questions about the detection of rogue aircraft. Thirteen years later, it is clear that only some of the answers have been found.