Investigators trying to find a Malaysian passenger jet that vanished March 8 will shift their focus to a new location south of previous searches after three months of combing the Indian Ocean failed to find debris.
The search is expected to resume off Australia’s west coast in August and could take as long as 12 months, Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said at a press conference in Canberra today. Investigators had previously done aerial searches in the region and had abandoned it after data suggested the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. jet may not have traveled that far, he said.
The ocean floor will be mapped and a search done in a zone as large as 60,000 square kilometers (23,100 square miles) along an arc previously identified from the jet’s satellite communication. Investigators from the U.S., U.K. and Australia, and officials from Boeing Co. and Inmarsat Plc have analyzed satellite and plane data to define an area with the highest probability of finding the missing aircraft after operations were put on hold May 28. The search is the longest in modern aviation history.
The disappearance of the Boeing 777-200 jet with 239 passengers and crew on board while on a routine flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur has baffled the authorities as contact was lost less than an hour into the journey with no emergency warnings. The jet vanished from civil radar while headed north and then turned direction to fly steadily over the equator.
“It’s highly, highly likely that the aircraft was on autopilot,” Truss said. “Otherwise it could not have followed the orderly path that has been identified through the satellite sightings.”
Investigators are “confident” the plane flew on autopilot across the Indian Ocean until it ran out of fuel, Australian Transport Safety Bureau Commissioner Martin Dolan said at the same conference. While the motive behind the turn back from its original route remains unknown, MH370 was deliberately steered south, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has said.
The new “priority area” is still focused on the seventh arc, where the jet last communicated with satellite, Truss said.
“We had earlier commenced searching further south, but on the basis of the information that was available at that time, there was a view that the aircraft may have entered the sea earlier than we had originally expected,” he said.
The new area will help provide a focus to the search and a private company will be selected to resume scouring the ocean.
Chinese naval ship Zhu Kezhen and the privately hired MV Fugro Equator have been charting 60,000 square kilometers of the ocean floor. Australia’s government is receiving bids from private companies by the end of this month for the deep-sea search that starts in August and could take as long as one year.
An initial report on the incident 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.
Australia is discussing with Malaysia and others on how the cost of the search may be shared, Truss said.
(An earlier version of this story was corrected to change the name of Australia’s Transportation Safety Bureau in the sixth paragraph.)