For the relatives of the 239 people on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370, the long wait for news about their loved ones on Saturday was a harrowing one.
Family members of those aboard the missing Boeing aircraft were united in their anxiety and despair, as they gathered in a Beijing hotel waiting for information that was hard to come by.
The aircraft was carrying people from 14 countries, from Indian parents travelling to Beijing to see their son, and Chinese sons and daughters returning home to be with their families, to artists, students and tourists from far corners of the world.
Relatives had risen early on Saturday to greet their families — the flight was due to land at 6.30 am local time, or 4 am IST, around six hours after taking off from Kuala Lumpur.
Instead, they arrived at Beijing airport’s Terminal 3 to hear the flight had been delayed indefinitely.
Chuang Ken Fei from Malaysia, who was waiting for his two friends, said he was first told by airline officials that the flight had not even taken off, although he found on flight-tracking websites that the Boeing 777-200 had left Kuala Lumpur.
Throughout the day, relatives of passengers were left angered by what they described as a lack of accurate and timely information from the airline.
Relatives were taken from Beijing airport to the nearby Lido hotel in northeastern Beijing, where a Malaysia Airlines office is also located.
Family members said it took airline officials “half a day” to even furnish a complete passenger list.
Later in the day, when rumours surfaced online that the aircraft had landed safely in the southern Chinese city of Nanning, airline officials were unable to confirm or deny the report for several hours, raising the hopes of waiting relatives.
An airline official told relatives and reporters on Saturday afternoon — more than 12 hours after the aircraft had lost radio contact — that the airline was “working to verify the authenticity of the report,” saying the aircraft had landed in Nanning.
“All we want is some clarity,” said one relative. “How difficult can it be to find out if indeed the flight has landed in Nanning, why is it taking them six hours to find this out?”
The airline’s real-time reporting of the flight’s situation also came in for criticism from experts here.
While airlines are bound to publish information about lost contact with an aircraft immediately, it took the airline five hours to announce the flight was missing, pointed out Zhang Qihuai, an official at the Aviation Law Study Institution in Beijing.
Even five hours after the flight lost radar contact, some relatives, who were waiting at Beijing airport, were being told the aircraft had not even taken off from Kuala Lumpur.
Separately, it emerged on Saturday that two passengers had travelled on the flight using stolen passports. The Austrian government said the Austrian national named on the passengers' list was not aboard the flight, and had his passport stolen in Thailand in 2012.
Italian authorities added that another passenger, Luigi Maraldi, was not on board the flight, and had also had his passport stolen in Thailand in August. It remained unclear whether the two cases wereconnected.
(This report was first published in The Hindu print edition of March 9, 2014)