The plane went missing in March 2014 with 239 people on board
"Decision to suspend the underwater search has not been taken lightly," statement said
Officials involved in the arduous search for Malayasia Airlines Flight 370 won’t rule out another hunt for the plane if “credible” evidence emerges, Australia’s transport minister said Wednesday.
“It’s not a closed book by any stretch,” Darren Chester said at a news briefing in Melbourne. “I don’t rule out a future underwater search.”
“It’s a question of if you have credible new information, which leads to a specific location.”
Australian, China and Malaysia announced the suspension of the the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 nearly three years after the plane vanished without a trace over the Indian Ocean.
Officials from those nations had been leading the search for MH370, which disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board. The countries on Tuesday issued a joint statement announcing the suspension.
“The decision to suspend the underwater search has not been taken lightly nor without sadness,” the statement said. “Despite every effort using the best science available, cutting edge technology, as well as modeling and advice from highly skilled professionals who are the best in their field, unfortunately, the search has not been able to locate the aircraft.”
At the news conference, Chester was asked what “credible evidence” would be.
“We’ll know it when we see it,” he said.
He’s hoping that new technologies, improved analysis of data, and better equipment would lead to solving what he calls an “extraordinary aviation mystery.
“I am hopeful we’ll have a breakthrough in the future,” he said. “It’s reasonable to expect there may be more debris uncovered in the weeks and months and possibly even years ahead which could lead to further information in solving this puzzle.”
Chester said the cost hadn’t been the “deciding factor” in the decision to suspen.
“There’s no question this has been a very costly exercise – in the order of 200 million Australian dollars has been spent on the underwater search effort of which 60 million dollars has been provided by the Australian government, and the Malaysian government has contributed more than anyone else in that regard,” he said.
“So it has been a costly exercise but it hasn’t been the factor which has led to the decisions to suspend the search. We are in a position where we don’t want to provide false hope to families and friends.”
He stressed that there has been a “very limited amount of actual data that experts were dealing with.”
“The fact that we haven’t located the aircraft in the 120,000-squar-kilometer highest probability search area would indicate the aircraft is not in that area.”
Greg Hood, chief commissioner for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, told reporters that “residual search-related activity is continuing” until February.
He said the ATSB would continue to analyze satellite imagery for any signs of MH370 as well as any debris that may be linked to the missing plane.
Voice370, a support group for family members of those aboard the flight, released a statement expressing disappointment over the suspension.
“Commercial planes cannot just be allowed to disappear without a trace,” the statement said.
“Stopping at this stage is nothing short of irresponsible, and betrays a shocking lack of faith in the data, tools and recommendations of an array of official experts assembled by the authorities themselves.”
Steve Wang, whose mother was on board the flight, told CNN he was disappointed the search had ended with few, if any, answers.
“They said they are quite sure that they are searching the right place, but it seems that they are wrong,” he said.
“I think it is their responsibility, not only for the 239 passengers on the plane, or for the next of kin like us, but also they have to give an answer to the whole world … what really happened to MH370.”
Chester said members of families he spoke to “in the last 24 hours” had been “very understanding of the decision that has been reached by the three governments” during their “emotional time.”
“Some were aware that we were approaching the completion of the priority search area (and) they were very thankful to the ATSB and the experts and the searchers for the work they’ve done. They were very appreciative of the Australian government’s effort and understood the decision.”
By the numbers
26 -- Countries involved in search
151 -- Estimated cost of search in millions of U.S. dollars
239 -- Crew and passengers on MH370
1,046 -- Days MH370 missing when search ended
6,000 -- Meters deep in parts of the ocean searched
120,000 -- Square kilometers in final search area
4,600,000 -- Square kilometers in original search area
- Source: Joint Agency Coordination Centre
Multiple family members of those who were on the plane told CNN they received a text message from Malaysia Airlines informing them about a briefing in Beijing at 9 a.m. local time.
In a statement, the airline said it “stands guided” by the decision to suspend the search, which it described as a “thorough and comprehensive effort.”
The company shares “in the sorrow” that the search was not successful, the statement said.
The plane’s disappearance remains one of the greatest aviation mysteries in modern history.
Searchers spent millions of dollars scouring tens of thousands of square miles, but so far have yielded little new information about the plane’s final moments.
In July last year, Australia, China and Malaysia agreed that if the aircraft was not located by the time 120,000 square kilometers (46,000 square miles) had been covered, the search would be suspended.
“The decision came not lightly,” Chester said at the time. “But in the absence of new credible evidence it is not possible to continue searching. Every effort has been made. We have used the most high tech and the best people for this search.”
The Tuesday statement said that vessel was not located in the 120,000 square kilometer search area.
What we do know
At 12:41 a.m. local time on March 8, 2014, MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport for Beijing. It was heading north but after its last message of “Good night Malaysian Three Seven Zero,” it changed course toward the west, according to military radar.
From there, investigators believe it turned south around the edge of Indonesia and across the vast Indian Ocean.
Investigators confirmed in July that MH370 captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah had tracked a route deep into the Indian Ocean on his home flight simulator, very similar to the one officials believe the missing plane took.
Grandparents, a newly graduated engineer, a young couple and a 2-year-old boy were among the hundreds of people on board MH370 when it vanished.
Most of the passengers and crew were from China and Malaysia, but individuals and families from 14 different countries were also on board the missing flight.
Based on some of the wreckage that’s been found, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau determined the wing flaps had been stowed when MH370 crashed.
The report suggested the plane had been out of control, spiraling downward at a rate of almost 300 miles per hour at its last satellite transmission.
These findings suggested “two early hypotheses,” according to CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo; either that a fire on board the plane incapacitated everyone through smoke or fumes, or that a rapid decompression, perhaps because of a breach in a window, led to their deaths hours before the plane ran out of fuel and spiraled downward.
But investigators still haven’t been able to say for sure what caused the crash, and, unfortunately, according to O’Neill and Associates aviation expert Peter Goelz, the debris discovered has so far done little to enlighten authorities – or the victims’ families – as to what exactly happened.
“All it tells us is what we suspected, in that the plane crashed somewhere in the South Indian Ocean,” he told CNN in November. “At some time in the future there will be a quantum leap forward in the ability to look underneath the sea and someone will find it. But that’s not for decades,” Goelz said. “I think at some point, they’ll find it – it’s too big a mystery. But the technology we have now, we can’t do it easily or cheaply.”
The high-detection devices exploring for MH-370 discovered two shipwrecks during the search – one some 200 years old and another shipwreck also from the 1800s – discoveries that give scientists hope that improved technology can one day detect the missing plane.
There’s also the possibility that the search teams were looking in the wrong place, according to an Australian government report released in December.
The report recommended that, based on new analysis, a new area to the northeast of the current search area should be searched, approximately 25,000 square kilometers.
However, Australian Transport Minister Chester said the search would not be extended without new evidence.
What’s been found
Multiple countries and companies have been involved in the extensive search, which has taken place along a defined arc in the Southern Indian Ocean, where the plane made its last satellite transmission.
Three pieces of the missing plane found off the coast of Africa have been confirmed as coming from MH370, using specific identification numbers.
The first piece found was a flaperon from the plane’s wing, which was discovered on Reunion Island in July 2015, after which came two wing flaps discovered in Mauritius and Tanzania in May and June 2016, respectively.
The ATSB said six other pieces of wreckage found off the African coast were likely to have come from the missing plane, but this wasn’t confirmed.
In total, 20 pieces of debris have been brought to the attention of the investigative team.
But those pieces of detritus have not given closure to those whose loved ones remain missing.
“The people who are living with you more than 20 years, and they leave suddenly,” Wang said. “We just want them to give us more information. I think there (is) still something, we don’t know.”
CNN’s Zahra Ullah in Hong Kong, Yuli Yang in Beijing and journalist KL Chan in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report