The three countries leading the operation to find the missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) aircraft are planning to hire a private contractor to oversee an advanced underwater search involving detailed mapping of the ocean floor, but have yet to agree on who will foot the A$60 million (S$70 million) bill.
The transport ministers of Australia, Malaysia and China met in Canberra yesterday to discuss the next phase of the search in the Indian Ocean following the failure to find MH370 in an initial underwater operation.
Australia's Deputy Prime Minister and Transport Minister, Mr Warren Truss, said a panel of aviation experts will meet tomorrow in Canberra to sift through all known data about the Boeing 777's flight path and to determine the new search area.
But he said it could take about two months to deploy the necessary equipment and that an unmanned submarine would continue to operate in the meantime.
"The key capabilities that are going to be needed… (are) a mix of towed side scan or synthetic aperture sonar, and of course capable autonomous underwater vehicles," Mr Truss said. "Work is under way to tender for this equipment and the aim is to have the assets in the water in the agreed search area as soon as possible."
Malaysia's Acting Transport Minister, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, added that he invited "other nations, institutes, research institutes and third parties to come on board this unprecedented search".
He said it was not necessary to offer a reward for finding the plane, noting that all nations and commercial operators had so far agreed to any requests for help.
"I don't think there is a reward big enough for us to offer because that would make them immediately the most famous company out there," he said.
The authorities called off the initial search covering 4,638,670 sq km after it failed to find any trace of the plane, which disappeared on March 8 after leaving Kuala Lumpur with 239 passengers on board, the majority of whom were Chinese nationals. With no sign of debris, MAS has sent passengers' families home and started the process of giving advance settlement payments.
The new underwater search area is likely to cover 60,000 sq km and will take eight to 12 months to cover.
Mr Truss said the expert panel would "audit" information such as the satellite data used to assess the plane's route and its end point in the Indian Ocean, as well as the results so far of the initial search effort. Other meetings this week will focus on the equipment required, which may come from governments but will mostly be provided by private operators.
He said one of the big challenges for the next phase of the search would be to map the ocean floor in the region, which is about 4km to 4.5km deep.
"Much of this area has never been mapped," he said.
"It will require a significant effort for us to understand the ocean floor in that area… There are only a handful of relevant pieces of machinery in the world… but we know that some countries have oceanographic vessels that are capable of mapping the sea at that depth, and hopefully we will be able to harness some of that equipment."
An unmanned Bluefin-21 submersible that has so far spent 35 days scouring the ocean floor without finding wreckage was being serviced yesterday. It is being operated from an Australian navy ship but has been deployed by United States navy personnel.
The Joint Agency Coordination Centre said yesterday that the US navy had agreed to assist for a further four weeks.
Search coordinator Angus Houston said he believed the search zone north-west of Perth was the right place to look but it was "sensible" to check the data that has been gathered and the way it was analysed.
"It's very sensible to… make sure that there are no flaws, in that the assumptions are right, the analysis is right, and the deductions and conclusions are right," he said.
Mr Truss said Australia estimated the cost at A$60 million and meetings would be held with China and Malaysia on sharing the expense, though Boeing and engine- maker Rolls Royce could also be called on to help. The headquarters for the search will be moved from Perth to Canberra to be closer to military and defence officials, as well as the Malaysian and Chinese embassies.
"We will need to discuss with Malaysia and with China and with other parties who have an interest in this how that or whatever other costs there might be might be shared," he said.
"We will be looking for increasing involvement from the manufacturers and their host countries."