The Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: How Long is Too Long?

Crew on board USS Kidd searching for signs of MH370 in the Andaman Sea, a part of the Indian Ocean

Crew on board USS Kidd searching for signs of MH370 in the Andaman Sea, a part of the Indian Ocean

By Jonathan Spira on 26 March 2014
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Preparations for the flight, boarding, and take-off, and the first hour of the flight itself, were largely unremarkable, in dramatic contrast to the very remarkable over two- week-long search for the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that departed Kuala Lumpur on March 8 and never reached its destination in Beijing.

While some searches do sporadically go on forever (the case of Amelia Earhart comes to mind), it is worth noting that the original search for Earhart and her Lockheed Electra aircraft ended in failure roughly two weeks after she disappeared. At a cost of $4 million, or roughly $64 million today adjusting for inflation, the air and sea search by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard was the most costly and extensive in U.S. history up to that point.

With scant leads and even less progress in the case of MH370, the question of how long the search should go on is starting to be raised.

On Monday, the Malaysian prime minister effectively put an end to what was ostensibly a search-and-rescue operation and turned it into a search-and-recovery mission by declaring that the flight “ended” in the southern Indian Ocean as the airline told relatives of passengers that there were no survivors.

Although no one wants to abandon the effort at the present time, more progress is needed.  Countries participating in the search have begun to snipe at each other. Even the Chinese, who are typically reluctant to criticize Malaysia, have not kept silent.

As I write this, search crews are once again beginning to get started as the sun comes up over the Indian Ocean after a hiatus due to “horrendous” conditions.  On Saturday, the Chinese government announced that a big piece of “something” had been located in a satellite image and, on Sunday, the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, sounded more optimistic when he spoke of “credible leads” in the search.  On Tuesday, we received work of a “partial” ping that may eventually give investigators a better idea of where the plane crashed.

That’s about all we have right now, folks.

In a world where one is constantly connected, where activities are covered by satellite and surveillance cameras as well as airplane-tracking technology, and where Google’s satellite images allow one to count the number of flagstones on a walkway, we are looking at grainy, poor-quality images of the Indian Ocean, pictures taken through the atmosphere and clouds of a stormy, largely unpopulated ocean that all looks the same.

Indeed, the current search area is still three million square miles and the costs are mounting.   This past week, China, Japan, and Britain joined the search in the southern Indian Ocean, along with Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.  The fact that China and Japan are able to set aside their differences – the two are locked in a dispute over control of islands in the East China Sea – is a bright spot in an otherwise somber occasion.

By comparison, the search area for Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, is said to have covered a mere 800 square miles. There was little delay in locating the wreckage, although the aircraft’s black boxes were not recovered from the ocean floor until May 2011, nearly two years later.

The search for AF447 was said to have cost $100 million, and that covered a far smaller area over a shorter period of time in circumstances where the location of the aircraft was known.

As of now, the United States is said to have spent $2.5 million and budgeted $4 million for the search. American efforts to locate the missing plane include the deployment of the Navy’s new P-8A Poseidon aircraft, which is modeled on a Boeing 737-800 airliner.  The United States’ contribution is far smaller than what other countries have budgeted for at this point.

The money spent on analysis, as well as on the movement of people and equipment, comprises the major costs of the search.

Regardless, there is no roadmap to the end of this situation, no guidelines as to where and how money should be spent, and, at some point, someone has to say, “If we don’t find any more substantial clues, we simply cannot continue.”

Despite the dearth of leads, optimism still prevails.  “We want to find these objects,” said John Young, an official with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, referring to some of the items spotted in satellite images, “because they are the best lead to where we might find people to be rescued.”

 

 

 

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