A search-and-rescue operation has been launched for the Boeing 777 carrying 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers.
BEIJING — Fears were growing Saturday for the 239 people aboard a Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing that vanished over the South China Sea, possibly while in Vietnamese airspace.
International authorities in the region have launched a search-and-rescue mission but Malaysian officials said they could not confirm reports that the plane crashed into waters near Vietnam.
Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Juahari Yahya said there was no indication that the pilots sent a distress signal. No wreckage has been spotted.
"We deeply regret that we have lost all contact with flight MH370 which departed Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. earlier this (Saturday) morning bound for Beijing," Yahya said in a statement released Friday night ET.
FACT SHEET: Deadliest air disasters in world history
"Focus of the airline is to work with the emergency responders and authorities and mobilize its full support," Yahya's statement read. "Our thoughts and prayers are with all affected passengers and crew and their family members." The families of those missing are being contacted.
In an update to the statement on Saturday, the airline said it has still yet "to establish any contact or determine the whereabouts of flight MH370."
Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said there was no reason to suspect terrorism but that all possibilities were being looked into.
The twin-engine jet carried 227 passengers and 12 crew members. Malaysia Airlines said four Americans were on board.
Malaysia Airlines said the people on board represented 14 nationalities, including 152 plus one infant from China, 38 from Malaysia, 7 from Indonesia, six from Australia, three from France, three plus one infant from the United States, two each from New Zealand, Ukraine and Canada, and one each from Russia, Italy, Taiwan, Netherlands and Austria. Five Indian nationals were also on the flight.
BREAKDOWN: The nationalities on board Flight MH370
Subang Air Traffic Control reported that it lost contact with flight MH370 on Saturday at 2:40 a.m. local time (1:40 p.m. Friday ET), about 2½ hours after taking off, according to Yahya and a statement by the airline.
Earlier, the Xinhua News Agency, citing a local Vietnamese media report, said a Vietnamese search-and-rescue official reported that signals — possibly emergency transponder beacons — have been detected from the plane about 220 kilometers (120 miles) southwest of Vietnam's southernmost coastal province of Ca Mau.
Air traffic control received a signal from the plane about one minute before it entered Vietnamese airspace, the Vietnamese government said in a statement. Air traffic control then lost all contact, including a radar signal.
The last signal from the plane was received as the aircraft prepared to transfer to the airspace above Ca Mau province.
The AFP news agency reported that Malaysia has sent two helicopters, a plane and four ships to waters between Malaysia and Vietnam. The Philippine military has dispatched three ships and a surveillance plane. China has sent two ships.
Finding planes that disappear over the ocean can be very difficult. Airliner "black boxes" — the flight data and cockpit voice recorders — are equipped with "pingers" that emit ultrasonic signals that can be detected underwater.
Under good conditions, the signals can be detected from several hundred miles away, said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. If the boxes are trapped inside the wreckage, the sound may not travel as far, he said. If the boxes are at the bottom of a deep underwater trench, that also hinders how far the sound can travel. The signals also weaken over time.
Developments appeared to be on hold at Beijing Capital International Airport.
At 11 a.m. local time one woman who appeared to be about 30 and a male companion angrily pushed away journalists who approached with questions. Security led her away.
A handwritten sign on a notice board at the airport indicated that anyone there to meet the plane should report to the Beijing Lido Hotel "to understand relevant information."
The public may contact the airline at 011-60-603-7884-1234 for more information, the airline said.
Information provided by Malaysia Airlines shows the crew in the cockpit were very experienced: the flight was piloted by Capt. Zaharie Ahman Shah, 53, of Malaysia. He has 18,365 flying hours and joined the airlines in 1981. The first officer is listed as Fariq Ab.Hamid, 27, of Malaysia. He joined the airline in 2007 and has 2,763 total flight hours.
SAFETY RECORD: Malaysia Airlines is an award-winning national carrier
The most notable accident occurred in July 2013, when an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777-200 with 291 passengers and 16 crew members crashed as it landed at San Francisco, killing three passengers and seriously injuring 48 others. Investigators blamed pilot error.
The flight was a codeshare with Chinese carrier China Southern Airways, flight number CZ748. The flight was bound for Beijing's Terminal 3, a major extension built in time for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
Some of the passengers are likely to be mainland Chinese tourists to Malaysia, where a quarter of the population are ethnic Chinese. The country has become an increasingly popular destination for Chinese travelers. The Malaysian government has targeted two million Chinese tourist arrivals this year in conjunction with the Visit Malaysia Year 2014.
China used to have a poor reputation for aviation safety, but has greatly improved its safety record in recent decades, even as it has rapidly expanded the number of flights and built scores of new airports across the country.
The search-and-rescue operation comes amid one of the safer stretches of global aviation in history. For instance, in the U.S., 2012 was the airline industry's safest since the dawn of the jet age. An air disaster with a death toll of more than 200 hasn't occurred since 2009, when Air France Flight 447 went down during a flight from Brazil to Paris, resulting in the deaths of all 216 passengers and 12 crew members.
Malaysia Airlines' last fatal incident was in 1995, when one its planes crashed near the Malaysian city of Tawau, killing 34 people.
Among the deadliest aviation incidents in history:
- 583 people died in the largest commercial aviation disaster in history, which occurred in 1977. Two Boeing 747 jumbo jets collided on the runway at Los Rodeos airport on the island of Tenerife, off the coast of Western Africa.
- Just two months after 9/11, an American Airlines flight on its way to the Dominican Republic crashed in Queens, N.Y., just after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport, killing all 260 people aboard and five people on the ground.
- In 1999, an EgyptAir flight from Los Angeles to Cairo crashed in the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 217 people on board. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board believed that the Egyptian pilot brought the plane down intentionally. However, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Agency determined that the plane crashed due to a mechanical failure.
- All 229 people onboard a 1998 Swissair flight died when the plane, going from New York to Switzerland, crashed in the Atlantic Ocean southwest of Halifax, Canada. The captain was unable to tame a fire that appeared to be coming from an air conditioning unit in the cockpit.
Contributing: Melanie Eversley in New York, Donna Leinwand Leger in Washington; Associated Press