Plane Searchers Seek More Advanced Submarines in New Phase

May 05, 2014 1:06 am ET

(Updates with estimated cost in second paragraph.)

May 5 (Bloomberg) -- Investigators hunting for Flight 370 are seeking more sophisticated submarines to dive deeper into the Indian Ocean as private companies take a greater role in the search for the missing Malaysian plane.

The ocean floor will be mapped anew and tenders will be issued to procure new sub-sea vessels, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said today. The next phase may cost about A$60 million ($56 million) and discussions are needed with Malaysia and China on sharing the expense, Truss said. Meetings will start May 7 in Canberra, the Australian capital that’s the new headquarters of the operations, to analyze data collected and to discuss what assets are required and available.

Only a limited amount of equipment worldwide is up to the task of finding the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. jet and tenders will be issued to get them. Malaysia and China both vowed to continue with the hunt, the world’s longest for a missing passenger jet in modern aviation history.

The operation is “entering a new phase that will now be focused on intensifying the search of the ocean floor over a larger area,” according to a communique issued after the tripartite meeting. “While we are preparing for this new phase, dedicated vessels from Australia, Malaysia and China will continue maritime operations to maintain continuity and momentum,” it said.

Bluefin-21

Officials from Malaysia, China and Australia met in Canberra today to shape the new phase after a 58-day multination hunt by planes, ships and submarines found no debris and couldn’t pinpoint pings consistent with transmissions from flight recorders. The search may go on for as long as 12 months depending on weather conditions, Angus Houston, who heads Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre, said May 2.

So far, each country has borne its own cost for the search, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said today. Costs going forward depends on the assets that are available with governments and those taken from elsewhere.

“We’ll be looking at increased involvement from the manufacturers and their host countries,” Hishammuddin said.

The Bluefin-21 submersible will continue with its missions to dive deep, using sonar in an effort to find debris. An Australian aircraft will also be on standby. The tender will aim to identify a single operator to maintain and lead the private- sector’s efforts in the search, Truss said. A single submarine may not be capable of carrying out all the tasks, and more submersible equipment may be needed, Truss said.

Advance Payments

Ten civilian planes, 14 ships and 19 military aircraft have conducted 334 search flights to hunt an area of 4,638,370 square kilometers in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Perth in Western Australia, Truss said.

“Unfortunately, all of that effort has found nothing,” Truss said. “We’ve 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.”

With no sign of debris, Malaysian Air sent passengers’ families home and started the process of giving advance payment.

“We are very disappointed and feel helpless,” Xiao Bian, who said his elder brother was one of the 239 people on board, said in an interview. “Malaysian Airline must have known where the plane is and they have been keeping the truth from us.”

Confusion

In Australia, the family of one of its citizens on board held a memorial service over the weekend, according to a statement read over the phone by the Queensland Police Service.

The disappearance of the Boeing Co. 777-200ER has baffled authorities because contact was lost less than an hour into a routine trip to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.

The jetliner vanished from civilian radars while headed north over the Gulf of Thailand, then doubled back and flew over Peninsular Malaysia and on into the remote waters of the Indian Ocean, according to analysis of satellite signals.

While the motive behind that heading remains unknown, MH370 was deliberately steered south, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has said. There are no indications of any survivors, the airline has said previously. Malaysia is determined to continue with the search, state news service Bernama reported today, citing Najib.

The international team abandoned its aerial search for debris late last month. An unmanned submarine has scoured more than 400 square kilometers (154 square miles) of ocean floor off the west coast of Australia without picking up a trace of the plane, and the search area will be expanded, authorities said previously.

Payments

An initial report on the incident last week showed confusion reigned as the jet went missing, with the military not realizing it was seeing the diverted plane and top government officials not being briefed about the situation for nine hours.

With no signs of progress, Malaysian Air has said it will close family-assistance centers by May 7 and advised relatives to go home to wait for information. It said it would make advance payments on eventual settlements. The state-owned airline didn’t say what amount would be disbursed.

Tensions have been rising among the mostly Chinese family members over incomplete or conflicting reports shared by government officials.

Last month, frustrated relatives of passengers on the missing jet held the carrier’s staff in a Beijing hotel ballroom for more than 10 hours as they demanded the Malaysian government give a fuller accounting of Flight 370.

A relative of a missing passenger attacked Kalaichelven Shunmugam, Malaysian Air’s security supervisor, kicking him in the knee in an April 22 incident.

“We will continue to search in accordance with the consensus reached at this meeting and ensure that the search will not be interrupted, not be suspended, not be given up and not to be slacked,” China’s Transport Minister Yang Chuantang said at a press conference after the meeting.

--With assistance from Tian Ying and Penny Peng in Beijing, David Fickling in Sydney, Kyunghee Park and Shamim Adam in Singapore and Michael Sin in Hong Kong.