By Niluksi Koswanage
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Friends and family of the co-pilot who flew the missing Malaysia Airlines jet said the 27-year-old was religious and serious about his career, countering news reports suggesting he was a cockpit Romeo who was reckless on the job.
Fariq Abdul Hamid, who joined the national flag carrier in 2007, was helping to fly the Boeing 777 whose disappearance on Saturday has turned into one of the world's greatest aviation mysteries.
There has been no trace of the plane carrying 239 people nor any sign of wreckage as the navies and military aircraft of more than a dozen countries scour the seas across Southeast Asia.
Australian media reported that Fariq and a pilot invited two women to join them in the cockpit on a flight from Thailand to Malaysia in 2011, where he smoked and flirted with them.
Jonti Roos, a South African living in Melbourne, confirmed to Reuters that the incident took place but said she did not feel that Fariq behaved irresponsibly.
Malaysia Airlines said it was shocked by the allegations in the report, which was based on photos of the apparent cockpit meeting and an interview with Roos.
Smoking has been banned on almost all commercial flights since the late 1990s. Cockpit doors have been reinforced since the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and passengers have largely been barred from entering the cockpit during the flight since then.
The report also angered some of Fariq's friends, some of whom took to social media to rebut the report first aired by Australian Channel Nine's A Current Affair program.
Fariq, first officer of Flight MH370, had clocked a relatively few 2,700 hours of flying.
He had wanted to become a pilot from his school days, said a relative who asked not to be identified.
"He is a good student. He worked very hard to get where he was. His parents are so proud of him," said the relative, who had visited Fariq's family home for prayers in the outskirts of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
Fariq and his family are Muslims, like a majority of people in the Southeast Asian nation.
"And now, there is news that he was someone else. It is a very cruel thing to do at this time. We just want him to be safe," the relative said.
POLICE QUESTION FAMILY
The focus of a probe into the plane's disappearance could be turning to the flight crew or passengers with aviation experience after sources with knowledge of the Malaysian investigation told Reuters they increasingly suspect foul play.
Radar evidence suggests it was diverted hundreds of miles off course, the sources said, an action that could only have been taken deliberately, either by flying the jet manually or by programming the auto-pilot.
Investigators were still looking at "four or five" possibilities, including a diversion that was intentional or under duress, or an explosion, Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on Friday. Police would search the pilot's home if necessary and were still investigating all passengers and crew, he said.
The captain of the flight, 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was a flying enthusiast who spent his off days tinkering with a flight simulator of the plane that he had set up at home, current and former co-workers said. Malaysia Airlines officials did not believe he would have sabotaged the flight.
Fariq's relative confirmed police had come to question his family about his background this week.
The son of a high-ranking civil servant in Malaysia's central Selangor state near Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Fariq was often seen attending prayers at a mosque near his family home, family and friends said.
"I haven't stopped praying to Allah in hope that my grandson and the other passengers are safe," Fariq's grandmother, Halimah Abdul Rahman, 84, told media in the northeastern Malaysian state of Kelantan from where the family hails. "He is a good person, respectful to elders and religious."
Roos said she assumed passengers must be allowed to fly in the cockpit in 2011 and would not have done so if she had known it was against regulations.
"I thought that they were highly skilled and highly competent and since they were doing it that it was allowed," Roos told Reuters. "I want to make it clear, at no point did I feel we were in danger or that they were acting irresponsibly."
Former and current Malaysia Airlines flight personnel said inviting passengers into the cockpit was rare, while smoking in the cockpit was frowned upon, although it did happen.
They declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue and company policy.
"It is a very male atmosphere in the cockpit. He was probably trying to fit in," said a former air stewardess with Malaysia Airlines who declined to be identified. "It can be a high-pressure job. It is not easy."
Social media users who said they knew Fariq said his character was very different to one portrayed by the Australian news report.
"As a friend, I vehemently disagree (with) the allegations made by Ms Roos. The Fariq I know is soft spoken and quite shy," said a friend who goes by the twitter name @Herleena Pahlavy.
(Additional reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Nick Macfie)