The hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 will be suspended once the current search area in the Indian Ocean has been completely scoured, the ministers of the three countries conducting the operation announced Friday, possibly ending all hopes of solving aviation's greatest mystery.
"In the absence of new evidence, Malaysia, Australia and China have collectively decided to suspend the search upon completion of the 46,300-square-mile search area," Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said after a meeting with his Australiana and Chinese counterparts.
He said suspension of the search does not mean an end to it.
"Should credible new information emerge which can be used to identify the specific location of the aircraft, consideration will be given in determining next steps," he said, reading from a joint statement. But it was clear that the searchers have given up hopes of finding the jetliner with less than 3,900 square miles left to be searched.
In their statement, the ministers acknowledged that "the likelihood of finding the aircraft is fading."
As Liow and the other two ministers were addressing the news conference, representatives of the passengers' families stood outside the building holding placards. "Find the plane, ease our pain," read one.
"We do not want it to be just a play of words. We don't want the suspension to be just a way to let everyone calm down and slowly forget about it," said Grace Subathirai Nathan, a Malaysian, whose mother Anne Daisy was on the flight. "We want them to be doing something in the interim to look for new information."
The Boeing 777 vanished more than two years ago while on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014. It is believed to have turned back west and then south before dropping into the Indian Ocean west of Australia, where the search has been concentrated.
Liow said the current search is being hampered by bad weather and damaged equipment, but still it would end by December. Although the ministers were at pains to say the search has not ended, it is evident that it highly unlikely to be resumed after December, given how few clues have emerged since the disappearance of the plane except for some debris that has been found off East Africa thousands of miles away.
Still, some relatives took the ministers' word for it and remained hopeful that the search will resume one day. "I feel encouraged. Fearing the worst, we now have something to hang on to," said K.S. Narenderan whose lost his wife Chandrika Sharma on the flight. "I read into it a commitment to stay engaged in the search and to hold themselves accountable to pursue the truth."
"You can suspend but don't stop there. Suspension can be five years, 15 years, 20 years .. it's a long wait, so go back to the drawing board," said Jacquita Gonzales, whose husband Patrick Gomes was a crew member on Flight 370.
The search has so far cost $135 million — the most expensive in aviation history.
Representatives from Voice 370, a group representing family members of the plane's 239 passengers and crew, met with Australian officials in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday and urged the governments to suspend the search until new funds can be raised. They also called for a wider base of funding, including from Boeing and other plane and component manufacturers.
The three governments are involved because the airline was Malaysian, most of the passengers were Chinese, and the suspected crash site is off southwestern Australia.
There have been several theories surrounding the disappearance and the final hours of the flight, including that the plane glided into the water and didn't dive in, indicating a controlled ditching.
"We do not have any evidence to confirm that it was controlled ditching," Liow said.
He said the plane debris found so far "did not identify the exact location of the aircraft" but the location of the debris is consistent with the drift modeling pattern done by Australia, which indicated a general search area.
A Western Australia University oceanographer Charitha Pattiaratchi , who has done extensive drift modeling, said the plane could have crashed slightly north of the current search area.
"The best guess that we think is that it's probably around the Broken Ridge region, which is slightly to the north of the area that they're looking at," Pattiaratchi said.
Drift modeling was not used to define the search area because no parts of Flight 370 had been found before a wing flap washed up on La Reunion island off the African coast a year ago. The search area was determined by analysis of satellite signals that the plane emitted in its final hours.
But the Australian Transport Safety Bureau has previously said wreckage found on the southwestern shores of the Indian Ocean was consistent with the plane crashing in the expansive search area.
Pattiaratchi's modeling was based on how long the first piece of confirmed Flight 370 wreckage took to reach La Reunion, an island where confirmed plane debris was found, and his team's calculations of the effects of currents, wind and waves on drifting debris put the crash site just north of the current search area.
Australian Transport Minister Darren Chester said experts will continue to analyze data and inspect the debris.
"Future searches must have a high level of success to justify raising hopes of loved ones," he said.