TIME Aviation

Missing-Jet Families Sent Home as Searchers Ponder Next Move

Family members pray during a candlelight vigil for passengers onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the early morning, at Lido Hotel, in Beijing on April 8, 2014.
Family members pray during a candlelight vigil for passengers onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the early morning, at Lido Hotel, in Beijing on April 8, 2014. Jason Lee—Reuters

The agency responsible for search efforts gives little credence to a theory that Flight 370 crashed off the coast of Bangladesh as grief-stricken relatives of missing passengers are told to vacate their hotel rooms in Kuala Lumpur and head home

The multinational team investigating the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 emphasized Friday that it was closing in on the missing jet, just hours after distraught relatives of passengers were told to go home and that family assistance centers were to be shuttered.

“I’m quietly confident that we’re on the right track, but the challenges ahead are huge,” Malaysia’s acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters Friday afternoon.

The previous day, he announced that hotel accommodation in Malaysia would no longer be provided for family members, who would instead be kept abreast of developments by phone, email and SMS. Initial compensation would also be paid to the bereaved.

On Monday a tripartite meeting will be held in Canberra between Australian, Malaysian and Chinese authorities to discuss the way ahead. Assembled media were told in Kuala Lumpur that combing the expanded search area — which now measures 435 by 50 miles — in the southern Indian Ocean would take eight to 12 months, depending on weather and other variables.

MH 370 departed the Malaysian capital for Beijing at 12:21 a.m. on March 8 but vanished from radar screens around 40 minutes later. In the absence of any radar tracking, investigators have been forced to rely on pioneering analysis by British firm Inmarsat of hourly maintenance signals emitted from the plane. That analysis indicated the Boeing 777 crashed somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.

Four other signals were subsequently heard from the seabed around 1,000 miles northwest of Perth, which investigators believe came from the doomed plane’s black boxes. Yet despite a thorough search of the vicinity by unmanned submarine, as well as hundreds of air and surface reconnaissance missions, not a single piece of debris has been found.

Earlier this week, Australian geological survey firm GeoResonance suggested the southern Indian Ocean theory may be flawed, and argued that its multispectral analysis of the Bay of Bengal showed a deposit of metals and other substances consistent with the wreckage of a plane around 120 miles south of Bangladesh.

Angus Houston, in charge of the joint search operation, said a three-ship fleet from Bangladesh was currently conducting a sonic survey of the seabed where GeoResonance believes the plane to be lying, but he did not give weight to the company’s findings. “I’m confident that the area in the Southern Ocean is the right search area, and I’m sure in the fullness of time we shall find the aircraft in that area,” he said.

Hishammuddin even suggested the Bay of Bengal search was being done to placate grieving relatives. “If we are irresponsible in our approach in going forward with that [GeoResonance] lead,” he said, “we also have to understand the emotions of the families.”

On Thursday, Malaysia’s Transport Ministry released a report stating that it took 17 minutes for air-traffic controllers to realize MH 370 was missing from radar screens and another four hours before a search operation was launched.

The report also called for the real-time tracking of aircraft and improved batteries for the black-box flight recorders. The devices’ beacons currently only last for about 30 days, and this has considerably hampered the search for MH 370. The recommendation will now be considered by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Improving black-box batteries was backed by Jean-Paul Troadec, head of the French aviation-accident investigation bureau responsible for finding Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on June 1, 2009. He was also present in Kuala Lumpur to bolster efforts.

“I know that some airlines have acted on their own to increase the duration of the batteries,” he said. “My suggestion is that any airline [should] not wait for the requirement from the ICAO to change the batteries on their recorders.”

However, this very same recommendation was also put forward after the Air France disaster but never acted upon, aircraft-accident investigator David Newbery tells TIME. During that crash, 228 people died, and the black boxes took two years to recover despite the fact that floating wreckage was spotted within hours, giving a vital clue as to where the sunken data recorders might be found.

“In the aviation industry, because of the certification and the cost and everything else, things happen a lot slower than we would all like them to,” says Newbery. He points out that flight recorders are very complex pieces of equipment built to withstand high G-forces, extreme temperatures and other inhospitable conditions, and exorbitant costs make any improvement unpopular for cash-strapped airlines.

“You can’t just put in a different battery and hope it will work,” says Newbery. “It will take some design and testing before this comes out.”

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