World News

Another Search Begins for Long-Missing Malaysian Airliner

Posted January 10, 2018 3:30 p.m. EST

BANGKOK — The government of Malaysia and a U.S. ocean exploration company began a new effort Wednesday to solve one of history’s greatest aviation mysteries: the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 nearly four years ago.

Ocean Infinity, a Houston-based company, could receive as much as $70 million if it finds the plane’s debris field or two data recorders within 90 days, Transportation Minister Liow Tiong Lai said Wednesday at a signing ceremony with company officials at Putrajaya, Malaysia’s federal administrative center.

But under the agreement, the company will receive nothing if it does not find the missing Boeing 777, which disappeared over the Indian Ocean on March 8, 2014, with 239 people aboard.

Liow called it a “no cure, no fee” agreement.

Under the contract, Malaysia will pay Ocean Infinity $20 million if it finds the wreckage or data recorders early in the search. The potential fee rises in staggered amounts to as much as $70 million, depending on how large an area the vessel searches before locating the plane.

The Seabed Constructor, a ship operated by the company, left Durban, South Africa, a week ago to get in position for the search. Weather can be harsh in the Indian Ocean, and the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, which is nearly half over, offers the best search conditions.

Last January, Australian officials indefinitely suspended the unsuccessful search for Flight 370 after nearly three years. They concluded that they may have been looking too far south in the Indian Ocean.

The aircraft was heading to Beijing, from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, when it deviated from its scheduled route for reasons unknown and headed south over the Indian Ocean, flying for about five hours and, most likely, running out of fuel. Although Malaysia’s military radar tracked the plane’s initial movements, the Malaysian air force did not scramble fighter jets to intercept the aircraft.

The plane’s exact route over the Indian Ocean remains uncertain. Experts attempted to determine the likely crash site by tracing communications signals between the aircraft and a satellite, but they could not pinpoint where the plane went down.

Pieces of debris believed to have come from the plane have washed up as far away as Madagascar, Réunion Island and Tanzania.

Many theories have been advanced to explain the plane’s disappearance, including the possibility that the pilot deliberately crashed the aircraft.

In 2016, more than two years after the plane disappeared, Malaysian officials acknowledged that the pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had practiced flying a route over the Indian Ocean on his home flight simulator. The disclosure added to speculation that he had deliberately flown to a remote area and crashed into the sea.

Two thirds of the passengers were Chinese citizens, and 50 of those aboard — including all 12 crew members — were Malaysian.

Malaysia, China and Australia, which lost six people on the flight, spent about $157 million on the search of the ocean floor west of Australia.

That comes to about $660,000 for each missing passenger and crew member. Critics of the prolonged search have said the money could have been better spent.

The Australian-led search covered about 46,000 square miles of seabed and produced a trove of scientific information. But after coming up empty, officials concluded that the likely crash site was in an area of about 9,700 square miles north of the initial search zone.

That is where the Seabed Constructor is now heading.

Ocean Infinity describes itself as a technology company specializing in collecting high-resolution geophysical seabed data. The Seabed Constructor can use up to eight unmanned submarines, known as autonomous underwater vehicles, which can operate independently and at depths of nearly 20,000 feet.

The company says the use of the untethered, deep-diving vehicles means it can search large areas of the ocean floor quickly and effectively.

“Whilst there can be no guarantees of locating the aircraft, we believe our system of multiple autonomous vehicles working simultaneously is well-suited to the task at hand,” said Ocean Infinity’s chief executive, Oliver Plunkett. Many of the victims’ families have urged authorities to continue the search and determine what happened to their loved ones. The state-owned Malaysia Airlines, Boeing and Rolls-Royce, the maker of the plane’s engines, also have a stake in figuring out why the aircraft disappeared.

But aviation experts say that finding the wreckage is not likely to answer the question of what went wrong.

In particular, it is unlikely that any information could be retrieved from the plane’s cockpit voice recorder. Even if it functioned after years deep under water, the recorder operates on a loop, and the crucial early part of the flight when the aircraft altered course would have been erased.

In concluding the earlier search, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau said it was “almost inconceivable” and “societally unacceptable in the modern aviation era” for a large commercial airliner to disappear and for the world not to know with certainty what happened.

Liow, the Malaysian transportation minister, said finding the aircraft remained a priority for the Malaysian government.

“I would like to reiterate our unwavering commitment towards solving the mystery” of the missing plane, he said in prepared remarks.