KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — It may mean little to investigators that the last words air traffic controllers heard from the lost jetliner were "Good night, Malaysian three-seven-zero," rather than "All right, good night." But to Malaysian officials whose credibility has been questioned almost from the beginning, it means a great deal.
Malaysian officials said more than two weeks ago that "All right, good night," were the last words, and that the co-pilot uttered them. They changed the account late Monday and said they are still investigating who it was that spoke. The discrepancy added to the confusion and frustration families of the missing already felt more than three weeks after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, and as of Tuesday officials had not explained how they got it wrong.
"This sort of mistake hits at the heart of trust in their communications. If Malaysia is changing what the pilot said, people start thinking, 'What are they going to change next?'" said Hamish McLean, an expert in risk and crisis communication at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.
"Information in a crisis is absolutely critical. When we are dealing with such a small amount of information it needs to be handled very carefully," he said.
Authorities have been forced on the defensive by the criticism, the most forceful of which has come from a group of Chinese relatives who accuse them of lying about — or even involvement in — the plane's disappearance. In part responding to domestic political criticism, defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein has taken to retweeting supportive comments on Twitter. He has twice in recent days proclaimed that "history would judge us well" over the handling of the crisis.
The government's opponents disagree. Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said the correction set off a "medley of shame, sadness and anger" and strengthened the case for creating an opposition-led parliamentary committee to investigate the government's performance in the search.
The communications skills of any government or airline would have been severely tested by the search for the Boeing 777-200 and its 239 passengers and crew. So far not a scrap of debris has been found.
"There has been very little to tell and a lot of unanswered questions," said Andrew Herdman, director-general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines. "There is frustration on the lack of new information, frustration over progress with investigations and the search. That frustration is being channeled to the Malaysian authorities but I think it's a bit premature to use that to reflect adversely on how they are doing."
Still, the government's handling of information has at times fed perceptions that it was holding back. From the first day of the search, crews were looking far to the west of the plane's last point of contact with air-traffic controllers, but it took about a week for officials to explain that radar had detected the plane in the area.