Transport Ministers from Australia, China and Malaysia announced after a meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday that they would double the current 60,000 sq km search zone if no trace of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is found by late May.
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss and Chinese Transport Minister Yang Chuantang met to discuss the current progress and next steps on the search activities.
The aircraft, a Boeing 777-200ER, flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, disappeared off radar over the South China Sea, less than an hour after takeoff on 8 March 2014 with 239 people, including 12 crewmembers on board.
Current underwater search efforts, started 6 October 2014, have involved sophisticated side-scan sonar equipment sweeping a 60,000 sq km area of seabed. More than 60 percent of the priority search area has been searched, and the process is expected to be completed by late May.
“Upon completion of the additional 60,000 square kilometres, all high probability search areas would have been covered,” they said in the statement.
If no trace of the plane is found, the initial search zone will be doubled to 120,000 sq km to “cover the entire highest probability area identified by expert analysis”, the joint statement from the ministers said.
According to the statement, the extended search area may take up to a year to complete given the adverse weather conditions in the forthcoming winter months in the southern hemisphere.
The extended area will constitute about 95% of the calculated flight path of the plane, but searchers hope they will find a trace in the current search zone by late May.
“We are confident we have the best search equipment…and if the plane is in the area we will find it,” Australia’s Warren Truss said.
Without revealing the cost of the next phase, he said Malaysia and Australia will continue to share the cost and “will be able to fund whatever is necessary.”
The high priority search area has been drawn based on “handshakes” between the plane and a communications satellite.
As the plane’s transponders, which alerts air traffic controllers to the plane’s location, were manually switched off from inside the cockpit, hourly satellite pings were the only interaction kept live for hours – after which investigators believe the aircraft ran out of fuel.
Investigators said in the initial report that movements are consistent with the deliberate action of someone on the plane.