Another Missing Jet Mystery: How Much Will the Epic Search Cost?

Flying Officer Marc Smith of Australia's air force turns his AP-3C Orion at low level while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 over the Indian Ocean on March 24 Photograph by Richard Wainwright/AP Photo

There’s no easy way to put a price tag on the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which has become an international obsession with a multinational cast of searchers in the days since its March 8 disappearance.

China—the home of most of the 239 missing people—has joined Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia in carrying the heaviest burden in terms of equipment and costs. The U.S. has budgeted $4 million to aid the hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, a small fraction of untold millions so far spent on the almost three-week effort involving equipment and personnel from more than two dozen countries.

A full public accounting will likely wait until a definitive outcome, since no one involved wants to appear callous or insensitive. The clearest comparison in terms of expense might come from the two-year search for debris, victims, and flight data recorders after the 2009 crash of an Air France flight into the Atlantic Ocean, which cost more than $40 million. The number of nations involved in the current search far exceeds the hunt for Air France Flight 447, led by France and Brazil in waters deeper than 15,000 feet. The U.S. Navy, as it has in the Malaysia Airlines search, sent ships to assist, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts donated scientific expertise and submersible equipment. An investigator in the Air France search told the U.K.’s Telegraph last week that the Malaysian jet search will likely prove more difficult—and potentially more expensive—given the relative lack of clues from the missing airplane.

The inventory of military equipment engaged in the search is extensive. Malaysia has deployed six ships, three helicopters, and two airplanes. China has sent 10 ships, three airplanes, and three helicopters. Australia has contributed five ships of its own, including the HMAS Success, a 157-meter ship that would be used to collect any large pieces of debris that may be found. Australian military aircraft, meanwhile, have been flying search sorties. The United Kingdom has dispatched the HMS Echo, a specialized survey vessel, to help search the sea almost 1,600 miles southwest of Perth. India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates have all sent aircraft to help.

Malaysia Airlines has already paid $5,000 to the families of each of the 227 passengers on Flight 370, or about $1.1 million in total, leaving aside other costs likely borne by the airline during the search.

The U.S. has been a smaller part of the international effort. About $1.5 million remains of the $4 million set aside by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to fund search operations through early April. “And then I think we have to reassess and decide whether we need to do more,” says Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Pool, a Pentagon spokesman. He dismissed questions about U.S. taxpayers’ spending as “a false story,” given the Navy’s routine daily operations in the region. “The ships would have been sailing anyway.” The search operation, Pool adds, “is good training for them” in the event a future calamity involves a U.S. aircraft or requires a search in U.S. waters.

The U.S. spends heavily to project a military presence around the globe, particularly since President Obama has identified the Pacific Rim as a priority of U.S. military engagement. The destroyer USS Kidd, which was dispatched to the search for more than a week, patrols the South China Sea as part of its regular mission. A second destroyer, the USS Pinckney, has been sent to Singapore for maintenance work after searching for more than a week. Two of the Pentagon’s surveillance aircraft flying search routes in the southern Indian Ocean are based at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan.

Of course, a huge and almost completely unknowable expense comes from the massive collection and analysis of satellite imagery, such as the intense effort conducted by Inmarsat, the British satellite operator responsible for calculating what is believed to be the flight’s last-known position. France, China, Britain, and the U.S. have all contributed satellite data and expertise to the search.

The U.S. Navy also has sent a Bluefin-21 underwater surveillance drone—capable of operating at depths as low as 14,700 feet—to Australia for use in the search. A separate electronic pinger detector device was also deployed to help with the search. The device, called a TPL-25, is towed by a ship and can detect underwater signals at depths of 20,000 feet or more.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.