Australian deputy PM says MH370 search may be called off

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss says the hunt for missing Malaysian Airlines MH370 may be called off as no trace of the plane has been found after a year of searching.

OFF COAST OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA (AGENCY POOL) – The search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 cannot go on forever, Australia’s deputy prime minister said, and discussions are already underway between Australia, China and Malaysia as to whether to call off the hunt within weeks.

No trace has been found of the Boeing 777 aircraft, which disappeared one year ago this week, carrying 239 passengers and crew shortly after taking off from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, bound for Beijing.

More than two dozen countries have been involved in the air, sea and underwater search for the missing plane. The current phase is focused on the sea floor about 1,600 km (1,000 miles) west of the Australian city of Perth.

Experts say the search of a rugged 60,000-sq-km (23,000-sq-mile) patch of sea floor, which experts believe is the plane’s most likely resting place, will likely be finished by May.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told Reuters that a decision would have to be taken well before May as to whether to continue into the massive 1.1-million-sq-km area around the primary search area if nothing is found by then.

“For many of the families on board, they won’t have closure unless they have certain knowledge that the aircraft’s been located and perhaps their loved ones’ remains have been recovered and that is the very strong feeling of many of the families on board. And, we would like to be able to do what we can to, for them to have that kind of closure. But, we can’t go on forever and eventually a judgement will have to be made,” Truss, who is also transport minister, said in an interview.

The search is already the most expensive in aviation history, and it remains an explosive political topic in China and Malaysia, which were home to the majority of the passengers. The fate of the plane is also one of the field’s greatest mysteries, with Truss comparing MH370 with the hunt for missing aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, who disappeared in 1937 during an early attempt to circumnavigate the globe.

“Clearly we can’t search all the oceans of the globe and the area we are talking about is vast. It’s up to six days sailing time from Perth, that’s actually the nearest port. So, it’s a difficult area to be working in. We’ve had four cyclones through the area in the period since the search has been undertaken. So, it can’t go on forever, but on the other hand we’re conscious of our responsibility to the families and to try and find closure and to try and find the aircraft while there’s hope that that might be able to be achieved,” Truss said.

Four vessels owned by Dutch engineering firm Fugro equipped with sophisticated underwater drones have searched about 40 percent of this previously unmapped area of sea floor that has been designated the highest priority.

The Australia-based Joint Agency Coordination Center (JACC) is running the search operations which involve Australian, Chinese and Malaysian search equipment.

Australia had set aside A$80-A$90 million last year for the search, already the most expensive ever undertaken. Malaysia has said it would split the costs. However, Truss said going forward the search will require commitment from other countries as well as Australia.

“We have committed significant financial resources to the search and we will have to make a decision also about how much more we will be prepared to devote and that would depend clearly on the commitments that other countries are prepared to make. While there are other counties that are willing to contribute, financially and materially to the search, well Australia’s likely to be there with them,” Truss added.

Martin Dolan, Chief Commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau which is leading the search, said he remained confident that the plane would be found in the remaining so-called “priority search area.”

However, the costs for continuing the search could be staggering and ultimately prohibitive.

“The area we’re covering at the moment is about sixty thousand square kilometres. That will take a significant portion of the budget currently available to us. So, the scale , if you take the theoretical maximum of the possible area for the aircraft – 1.1, 1.2 million-sq-km – you’re talking about orders or magnitude in terms of cost and time above what we’re currently doing and that’s something that governments obviously have to bear in mind,” he said.

Malaysia declared the flight’s disappearance an accident last month, clearing the way for airlines to pay compensation to victims’ families. Malaysia has said that it, China and Australia remained committed to the search.

Malaysia airline’s crisis worsened on July 17 last year when its Flight MH17, on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.