The hunt for missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 will have to move into a new phase if an unmanned submarine fails to find wreckage within a week, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, but he insisted that the search will not be called off.
Malaysia's Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Mr Abbott has relayed that message to Prime Minister Najib Razak and the two leaders are discussing the next course of action.
He also said that the operation will prove to be costly, as the military does not have the capability to carry out such a massive deep-sea search.
"When we look at salvaging (wreckage) at a depth of 4.5km, no military out there has the capacity to do it," Mr Hishammuddin said. "We have to look at contractors, and the cost of that will be huge."
Yesterday, the Bluefin-21, a United States Navy deep-sea drone, completed its first 16-hour full scan of the seabed in an uncharted part of the Indian Ocean. Two earlier attempts proved unsuccessful because the drone went below its 4,500m operating limit.
Australia's Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) said the Bluefin-21 had searched about 90 sq km so far and data collected from the mini-submarine was being analysed. A sample of an oil slick found in the same area about 2,000km west of Perth, Australia, is also being examined, the JACC said.
Yesterday's search also involved up to 10 military aircraft, two civil aircraft and 11 ships, the JACC said.
So far, no floating debris from the plane has been identified in the search areas in the southern part of the Indian Ocean, where the aircraft was believed to have crashed more than a month ago.
Mr Abbott said that even if the current search does not yield results in the next week, the effort will continue.
"If the current search turns up nothing, we won't abandon it, we will simply move to a different phase," he was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying yesterday. "If we don't find wreckage, we stop, we regroup, we reconsider."
Mr Hishammuddin said data from the Bluefin-21 showed images of the seabed but no sign of wreckage so far. He also acknowledged that there would come a time when searchers will have to "regroup and reconsider" if no wreckage is found.
"But in any event, the search will always continue. It's just a matter of approach," he told reporters yesterday.
The Beijing-bound MH370 with 239 passengers and crew onboard went missing early on March 8 after it lost contact with air traffic control towers less than an hour after taking off. Satellite data found the aircraft had turned back from its easterly route and flown towards a remote part of Indian Ocean.
The mysterious disappearance set off a massive search involving more than 20 countries and various military assets.
Several "pings" captured earlier this month led searchers to believe that the signals could have come from MH370's flight data and cockpit voice recorders, prompting intensified search efforts in areas where the signals were recorded.
But as no more signals have been heard since, and with the voice recorders more than a week past their battery life, search efforts have become even more complicated and required the scouring of the seabed.
This article was published on April 18 in The Straits Times.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.