Wednesday 11 December 2019

MH370: Officials say it's back to drawing board with data as search enters ‘new phase’

Officials have agreed on a “new phase” effectively taking the search effort back to the drawing board
Officials have agreed on a “new phase” effectively taking the search effort back to the drawing board

Adam Withnall

Nearly two months since the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, officials have agreed on a “new phase” effectively taking the search effort back to the drawing board.

No trace of the missing Boeing 777 has been found despite the most expensive recovery operation in history, and the authorities have set out a new search area which it could take them up to a year to cover.

Ministers from Australia, Malaysia and China met on Monday to discuss what to do next about the search, with statements suggesting the emphasis in funding the effort may be shifted towards commercial parties.

Speaking to reporters at the talks in Canberra, Australian transport minister Warren Truss outlined the scale of disappointment that the “giant effort” of weeks of searching both above below the surface of the Indian Ocean have produced no results.

“In this period 4,638,370 square-km of ocean have been searched, 334 search flights have been conducted and a total of 3,137 hours have been spent in the air,” he said. “There have been 10 civilian and 19 military aircraft and 14 ships engaged in this search for a long period of time.

“Unfortunately all of that effort has found nothing. We have been confident on the basis of the information provided that the search area was the right one, but in practice that confidence has not been converted into us discovering any trace of the aircraft.”

Mr Truss said that as visual searches above the surface seemed increasingly unlikely to produce any sign of debris from the plane, the next stage of the search would be “focussed on intensifying the ocean floor search in a much larger area”.

Angus Houston, the former chief marshal of the Royal Australian Air Force tasked with leading the search, said they wanted to ensure their assumptions were correct.

We've got to this stage of the process where it's very sensible to go back and have a look at all of the data that has been gathered, all of the analysis that has been done and make sure there's no flaws in it, the assumptions are right, the analysis is right and the deductions and conclusions are right,” he said.

The new search phase will cost around A$60 million (£32.9 million), and will begin after existing visual and sonar search data has been analysed and a contractor found to lease the sophisticated equipment needed, officials said after meeting in Canberra.

Financial responsibility was a major focus of the talks and Mr Truss seemed to open the door to manufacturers including Boeing, which produced the 777-200ER jet, and engine maker Rolls Royce, to contribute financially.

“They also have a vested interest in what happened on MH370 so they can be confident about the quality of their product, or take remedial action if there was some part of the aircraft that contributed to this accident,” said.

“So, I think we will be looking for increasing involvement from the manufacturers, and their host countries.”

Experts have narrowed the search area where the plane is presumed to have crashed to a large arc of the Indian Ocean about 1,600 km (1,000 miles) northwest of the west Australian city of Perth.

For now the search is on hold as the Ocean Shield, an Australian naval vessel carrying the drone, resupplies and conducts maintenance at a military base in Western Australia.

The officials will meet again in Canberra on Wednesday, they said, where they will begin thrashing out the details of how to proceed and who precisely will shoulder the costs of doing so.

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