Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott Says Best Flight 370 Search Leads Will Soon Be Exhausted: WSJ

The Wall Street Journal

By Daniel Stacey

Updated April 16, 2014 7:16 a.m. ET

SYDNEY—The best leads in an underwater search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 will be exhausted in about a week, Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Wednesday, as searchers battled to overcome technical issues that have hampered early efforts to scan the Indian Ocean's seabed.

Mr. Abbott said authorities would need to rethink their approach if a remote-controlled vehicle fails to locate wreckage from Flight 370 in a narrow area of ocean where searchers earlier this month picked up the strongest electronic signal out of a series of pings consistent with aircraft black box flight recorders.

"We believe that search will be completed within a week or so," Mr. Abbott told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. "If we don't find wreckage, we stop, we regroup, we reconsider."

Australian authorities have repeatedly cautioned that the subsea search for plane wreckage will be long and difficult, with officials saying that a seabed search of the broader area where pings were detected could take weeks. Little is known about the seabed some 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) below the surface of the Indian Ocean. They expect to encounter thick silt that may hide debris, including the black boxes, on the ocean floor and potentially strong ocean currents that could slow the movements of the Bluefin-21 underwater vehicle.

On Wednesday, a second attempt to scan the seafloor was cut short. The Bluefin-21 was forced to resurface so searchers could rectify a technical glitch, just a day after an earlier mission was aborted after the vehicle breached its limit of operating in waters up to 4,500 meters deep. An analysis of sonar data compiled on each search failed to identify any new leads.

"My determination for Australia is that we will do whatever we reasonably can to resolve the mystery," Mr. Abbott said. "If the current search turns up nothing, we won't abandon it, we will simply move to a different phase."

He reiterated his confidence that searchers were looking in the right place for Flight 370, based on the electronic signals—the longest of which lasted more than two hours—detected by equipment towed by Australian naval vessel ADV Ocean Shield on April 5 and April 8, around the time that the black boxes' 30-day battery life was due to expire.

Flight 370 was carrying 239 passengers, including 153 people from China, when it disappeared en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8. The search shifted to the southern Indian Ocean nine days later, soon after investigators realized the Boeing 777-200 was airborne for several hours after losing civilian radar contact over the Gulf of Thailand.

A near-monthlong search of the sea surface led by Australia, which has involved aircraft and ships from countries such as China and the U.S., has turned up only garbage. The operation has also pursued several other false leads, including satellite images purporting to show possible plane debris and underwater signals that were unrelated to Flight 370's black boxes.

That air and sea search for floating debris is nearing its end, Australia's Defense Minister David Johnston said in an interview, and any final decision will be made on advice from senior military and search officials. A total of 14 aircraft and 11 ships scanned the ocean surface Wednesday.

"It is obviously becoming less and less optimistic," Mr. Johnston said of the aerial search. Any potential debris field is likely to have "dissipated to the four winds," or sunk, he said.

A decision to call off the aerial search would allow nations to count the cost of their involvement up to now. Officials have declined to put a total amount on what it has cost each country to deploy ships, aircraft and military crews to Australia to assist in the search effort. Australian Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, who is leading the search operation, said Monday: "All of the countries that are contributing to this are running up big costs."

Authorities have several options available if the current underwater search by Bluefin-21 turns up nothing. They could order a second sweep of the seabed in a tight area where the first signals believed to have come from Flight 370's black boxes were detected. The search could also be expanded to a wider area around a series of transmissions heard on four occasions covering 500 square miles. U.S. Navy commanders have said a search on that scale could take six to eight weeks to complete.

Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said a later phase could involve a search along a wide arc of sea extrapolated from a partial digital "handshake" between Flight 370 and an Inmarsat   PLC satellite. That strip of sea is more than 370 miles long and 30 miles wide, according to search maps.

Authorities are increasingly relying on private contractors as the focus of the search for Flight 370 shifts underwater. Phoenix International Holdings Inc., a U.S.-based technology company, already has a contract with the U.S. Navy to provide underwater detection equipment, including the black box locator and Bluefin-21.

With authorities uncertain about the depths of the ocean, other organizations are ready to provide submersibles that can go deeper than Bluefin-21. According to David G. Gallo, director of special projects at the U.S.-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, two Remus 6000 underwater vehicles together costing US$20,000 a day to operate could be flown to Perth if required. Those submersibles were used in 2011 to locate the black boxes of Air France 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean two years earlier.

Mr. Dolan, Australia's top air-accident investigator, said a prolonged undersea search and salvage mission using privately owned equipment could cost up to 250 million Australian dollars (US$234 million). Mr. Johnston also said the underwater search may ultimately end up being run mainly by private companies, although he declined to estimate what that could cost.

"Ultimately it may well be that there is a civilian contractor to come and pick up the pieces if we have no success," said Mr. Johnston.

Payment of search and salvage contractors would likely need to be negotiated between Malaysia, who operated the aircraft, the U.S., where the plane was built, and China, where the majority of passengers came from, Mr. Johnston said.

—Lucy Craymer in Perth contributed to this article.