While the mystery builds over the still officially unexplained disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370, or just who the two passengers with "stolen" passports may have been although we expect a revelation on this issue shortly, the FT has added yet another twist to what is sure to be a conspiracy thriller for weeks to come: the paper reports that the Thai travel agent who booked the tickets for the men in question said that she had been asked to arrange the travel by an Iranian contact. Adding to the confusion is the revelation that originally the mysterious Iranian, known only as Mr. Ali, tried to reserve seats for the two men on separate flights not to China, but to Europe, one on a Qatar Airways flight, and the other on Etihad. And the punchline: a "friend" of Mr. Ali's paid for the tickets in cash.
The story as explained by the Financial Times:
Benjaporn Krutnait, owner of the agency Grand Horizon Travel in Pattaya, Thailand, said the Iranian, a long-term business contact who she knew only as “Mr Ali”, first asked her to book cheap tickets to Europe for the two men on March 1. Ms Benjaporn initially reserved one of the men on a Qatar Airways flight and the other on Etihad.
But the tickets expired when Ms Benjaporn did not hear back from Mr Ali. When he contacted her again on Thursday, she rebooked the men on the Malaysia Airlines flight through Beijing because it was the cheapest available. Ms Benjaporn booked the tickets through China Southern Airlines via a code share arrangement.
A friend of Mr Ali paid Ms Benjaporn cash for the tickets, she said, adding that it was quite common for people to book tickets in Pattaya through middle men such as Mr Ali, who then take a commission.
Mr Ali could not immediately be reached for comment on a Tehran mobile number provided by Ms Benjaporn. She added that she had known Mr Ali for about three years, during which time he spent a lot of time in Pattaya and booked travel for himself or his contacts at least once a month on average. There is no evidence that Mr Ali knew the two men were travelling on stolen passports.
Still, before some read into this as an attempt to provoke Iran sentiment, the travel agent said she "did not believe Mr Ali was linked to terrorism, particularly as he had not specified booking the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight but had instead asked for the cheapest route to Europe." Ms Benjaporn said she was speaking about the case because she was concerned over the speculation about a terrorist attack and wanted the facts to be known.
And the final wrinkle in the story came over the weekend, when China Southern, a codeshare partner for the Malaysian Airlines flight, revealed on its Weibo page the following (google translated):
Today, Malaysia Airlines MH370 lost contact is shared by a horse fly with China Southern Airlines flight code. According to preliminary statistics, there are seven Southern Airlines passenger market square, where a Chinese nationals, two Ukrainian nationals, an Austrian, an Italian nationals, a Dutch nationals and one Malaysian. Specific circumstances still verification. After the incident, I immediately started emergency procedures and first time to contact MAS obtain real-time information. For seven passengers on the plane lost contact, we will try to help Malaysia Airlines to do follow-up work.
So one mysterious accident, which by now appears to almost certainly be a midair "disintegration" that has loose ends linking both Iran and Ukraine? A very unfortunate set of completely unrelated coincidences, or something far more sinister? We expect the full "story", massaged as it may ultimately be, to be revealed in the coming hours.