The international rescue team searching for the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, lost since March 2014, has announced it will abandon operations if the plane is not found in the current search area.
The decision was announced by ministers of China, Malaysia and Australia, which have been leading the operation. The ministers, however, added the search could be renewed later if substantial new information emerges to help guide the rescuers to the airliner’s final resting place.
The hunt for MH370, going on without a break for over two years, has become the costliest search operation in the history of aviation. Despite the $135m bill and deployment of cutting-edge underwater sonars, so far all the operation has produced is a modest amount of fragments.
"In the absence of new evidence, Malaysia, Australia and China have collectively decided to suspend the search upon completion of the 120,000 square kilometre search area," Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said after a meeting with his Australian and Chinese counterparts.
"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.”
The disappearance of MH370 with 239 people aboard on 8 March 2014 is widely considered aviation’s greatest mystery. The plane is believed to have inexplicably veered off course, switching off the aircraft’s radio transponders and ultimately crashing in the middle of the Indian Ocean, thousands of kilometres away from its original trajectory. Inevitably, the mystery has inspired multiple contradictory theories about what might have happened.
The current phase of the search operation, originally scheduled to end in June, has been hampered by bad weather. With only 10,000 square kilometres (of the originally assigned 120,000) left to be scoured, the authorities have admitted the hope of finding the wreckage is rapidly diminishing.
Dutch geoscience and sea survey expert firm Fugro, which was contracted to provide three of its sonar-equipped vessels to search for the lost plane, has admitted yesterday that it may have been searching in the wrong area all along.
The search area was plotted using data from satellites. Until the aircraft's demise, its system kept sending regular automated confirmations via the Inmarsat satellite fleet. These 'pings' were later used to calculate the likeliest area where the aircraft would have come down.
However, these calculations were based on the notion that the plane spiralled and crashed directly into the ocean after running out of fuel. The most widely accepted theory behind the plane’s disappearance, presented by the official investigators, is that there was no one at the controls at the time of the impact. However, speculation has now emerged that someone may have been in charge until the last moments, piloting the plane in a controlled glide for a much longer distance than it would have covered if spiralling uncontrollably.
"If it's not there, it means it's somewhere else," said Paul Kennedy, director of Fugro Survey. "If it was manned, it could glide for a long way. You could glide it for further than our search area is, so I believe the logical conclusion will be, well, maybe that is the other scenario."
However, some believe the high-tech instruments may have missed the wreckage lying on the rugged sea floor at depths of up to six kilometres.
In January this year, Fugro lost one of its towed sonar vehicles after it crashed into a deep-sea volcano.