KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Friday defended the four-hour gap between the time when Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was first noticed missing and when the official emergency response was activated.
Mr Hishammudin said it was "not for us to discuss whether the four-hour gap" was too long and the issue should be left to the independent investigators to address.
The speed of response varies from situation to situation, he told reporters at a news briefing. In the case of Air France Flight AF447 in 2009, the government response took about six to seven hours, according to the minister.
Mr Hishammuddin said the MH370 case was different from that of Air France flight AF447 and SilkAir Flight MI185 in 1997. Investigators in those two cases knew the location where the planes went down, he said, adding that the preliminary report on MH370 was not as elaborate as that of the Air France incident as there were not as many leads and the wreckage of MH370 has not been found.
In the preliminary report released on Thursday, it was stated that search operations began four hours after the plane went off the radar at 1.21am on March 8.
The five-page report, mostly recapping information released over the weeks, also said Malaysia's air traffic control was informed by its Vietnamese counterpart at 1.38am that the plane could not be contacted.
It was later established that the plane's communications systems were disabled, with the last communication at 1.07am. Military radar subsequently found that the plane had turned back over peninsular Malaysia before vanishing north-west of Penang.
It is believed to have turned south and flown until it went down in the southern Indian Ocean, based on its last communications with a satellite.
According to the timeline released by Malaysia, search operations were activated at 5.30am in the South China Sea at the plane's last known position.
No trace of the plane carrying 239 people has been found so far, despite a massive air, sea and underwater search involving more than 20 nations.
Mr Hishammuddin said the Goverment is in "detailed discussions" with Malaysian companies such as Petronas, SapuraKencana Petroleum and DefTech regarding the deployment of specialised assets in the new deepwater search phase. These assets include autonomous underwater vehicle, side-scan sonar and remotely operated vehicles.
Speaking at the same briefing on Friday, Deputy Foreign Minister Hamzah Zainudin urged families of the missing passengers to return home to await updates on the search operation.
"MAS has been keeping and supporting the family members in Beijing for the last 55 days... It's about time for us to actually accept the reality that the family members should go back and wait for the answer in their hometowns,'' Mr Hamzah said.
The Malaysian flag carrier said on Thursday that it would no longer provide hotel accommodation for the families in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur and the assistance centres set up at the hotels will be closed from May 7.
Agence France-Presse reported on Friday that relatives of the Chinese passengers expressed anger after being told they must suddenly leave their Beijing hotel a day after the airline's announcement.
"I'm very angry," said Mr Steven Wang, whose mother was on the flight. "Malaysia Airlines have suddenly told us to leave," he added. "They should have at least given us an adjustment period for us to make preparations and collect our things."
Speaking at the news briefing in Kuala Lumpur on Friday, the Malaysian deputy foreign minister said the closure of the family assistance centre in Beijing was "not immediately" but would take place over the next few days. By May 7, it will be closed.
"Please, to be realistic about this, we have about 500 family members altogether. I don't think we can ask them to go back within a few hours from yesterday,'' he said.