Leaders to debate MH370 search funding

Jamie Smyth in Sydney and Tom Mitchell in Beijing
Financial Times
March 2, 2015

Australia, China and Malaysia will hold talks next month to consider whether to carry on funding the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which went missing almost a year ago.

Canberra said on Monday it remained “cautiously optimistic” about finding the missing aircraft and rejected media reports that discussions had already begun on whether to call off the search — the most expensive and complex in airline history.

“Discussions are not under way to call off the search,” said a spokesman for Warren Truss, Australia’s deputy prime minister.

“Discussions are ongoing about the search. We remain cautiously optimistic about finding the plane.”

But he said that ministers at April’s tripartite meeting in Australia may discuss how to proceed if the aircraft is not found. Operations in the current search area are due to be completed by May.

This weekend marks the first anniversary of the disappearance of Flight MH370, which was meant to be flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The incident is among the greatest mysteries in aviation history and has prompted the largest ever search effort.

There were 239 people on board the Boeing 777-200 and the search has concentrated on a remote part of the Indian Ocean off Western Australia but despite a year of surface and undersea searches, no trace of the jet has been found.

As the anniversary approaches, officials have begun to hint that the operation may be scaled back or abandoned.

“We clearly cannot keep searching for ever, but we want to do everything that’s reasonably possible to locate the aircraft,” Mr Truss told Reuters.

“For many of the families onboard, they won’t have closure unless they have certain knowledge that the aircraft has been located and perhaps their loved ones’ remains have been recovered.”

Last month Malaysia declared the MH370 disappearance an accident, with all 239 passengers and crew on board presumed dead. The conclusion came after a search by vessels and aircraft from 13 countries for the airliner, costing tens of millions of dollars.

Families of the Chinese passengers aboard MH370 have continued to hold sporadic protests outside Malaysia’s Beijing embassy and China’s foreign affairs ministry, saying that they have no confidence in the search effort and believe their loved ones are still alive.

“The Australian government’s search effort has been incompetent and it is flinching from its responsibility,” said Liu Kun, whose brother was on the plane. “We hope our loved ones can come home soon.”

Chinese officials have so far managed to contain the families’ protests, which have been directed primarily against the Malaysian government, but are concerned they could rebound against Beijing as well.

Mr Liu said many family members would regroup in the Chinese capital over coming days, with many of them planning to travel to Kuala Lumpur for the anniversary.

The search has so far covered 18,600 square kilometres of ocean off Western Australia, where the aircraft is presumed to have ditched after running out of fuel.

The loss of Flight MH370 has sparked theories ranging from hijack or a terrorist-inspired suicide mission by one or both of the pilots, to catastrophic mechanical failure.

It has prompted an industry-wide effort, including the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the UN agency that sets global standards, to come up with new benchmarks to improve global tracking to ensure no aircraft ever again goes missing without trace.

At the weekend Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia said they were launching a pilot system enabling airlines’ routes to be tracked every 15 minutes, an improvement on the current 30-40 minutes.

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