KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – The search area for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 will be expanded by another 23,000 square miles in the Indian Ocean if the jetliner is not found by May, officials said Thursday, affirming their commitment to not give up until it is located.
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said that Malaysia, Australia and China, which are leading the hunt for the Boeing 777 that went missing on March 8 last year, are "committed to the search."
He told reporters after meeting with his counterparts from the other two countries that so far 61 percent of the 23,000-square-mile search area has been scoured off Australia's west coast. The remaining 39 percent would have been searched by the end of May, he said.
"If the aircraft is not found within the 60,000 square kilometers, we have collectively decided to extend the search to another 60,000 square kilometers within the highest probability area," he said. However, searchers are hopeful that they can find the plane in the current search area, he said.
The announcement removes some ambiguity about the future of the search as it was never made clear what would happen if the plane is not found. It will also come as a solace to the relatives of the victims, who are holding out the hope of recovering the bodies.
Liow said the two areas together would cover 95 percent of the flight path of the plane, which went missing while on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board. Most of the passengers were Chinese. It dropped off the radar, and investigators using satellite data later figured out that it made a series of turns and headed in a completely opposite direction from where it was going before crashing into the Indian Ocean.
"We are confident we are searching in the right area," Australian Deputy Prime Minister and transport minister Warren Truss said at the news conference, alongside Liow. "We are confident we have the best search equipment ... if the plane is in the area we will find it."
He said Malaysia and Australia will continue to fund the cost of the next phase of the search. He or the other ministers did not say how much it would cost.
"Australia and Malaysia have been sharing the cost and we will continue to do that," he said. "We are confident we will be able to fund whatever is necessary."
In the first phase, a total of $93.6 million was spent by the two countries, split equally, and Liow said the next phase is estimated to cost $39 million.
The lower cost is because the equipment has already been purchased.
The two ministers said they expect the second phase to take the rest of this year. But it is likely to be hindered by bad weather as winter sets in soon in the southern hemisphere, where seasons are opposite that of the northern hemisphere.
A statement issued after the meeting said the ministers also agreed on plans for recovery activities, including securing evidence, in the event the aircraft is found, but gave no details.
In late January this year, Malaysia's government formally declared the plane's disappearance an accident and said all those on board were presumed dead. A comprehensive report into the disappearance found no significant anomalies in the flight, except that the battery of the locator beacon for the plane's data recorder had expired more than a year before the jet vanished.
That still does not explain what caused the plane to veer so off course in what has become aviation's biggest mystery that continues to confound experts and investigators alike. At the same time, the relatives of the dead have got no closure and many still believe that their loved ones may be alive amid a host of conspiracy theories including one that the plane was hijacked and landed somewhere safely.
One theory also has the plane flying west to Maldives. Truss said the plane may have had enough fuel to reach Maldives but it would have been impossible for it to be in the reported area in daylight and not be seen by anyone. Also, the flight path to Maldives would be inconsistent with satellite and radar data. "It is not considered a likely possibility," he said.
China's transport minister Yang Chuantang said China may contribute vessels and other assets in the next search phase.
"We will marshal some physical assets including vessels to participate in the search," he said. "We will not waver in our commitment to continue the search until we find the plane and resolve the mystery."