Why It Matters

Lessons from MH370 search

It is becoming clear that after the last remnants of the 120,000 sq km of the southern Indian Ocean have been scoured, the world will be none the wiser about what happened to MH370 than it was more than two years ago when the Malaysia Airlines plane blipped off the radar, never to be seen again.

Last Friday, after a meeting between Malaysia, China and Australia - the countries involved in the search - it was announced that the hunt for the Malaysian plane would be "suspended" instead of "finished" when the last 10,000 sq km of the search area is covered, likely by October. It seemed a politically correct thing to say - that no one was giving up on the 239 people on board the plane, many of whom were passengers from China.

After the jet disappeared en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014, there were several false alarms and red herrings, before analysis of radar and airplane telemetry led officials to pinpoint the area off Australia's west coast.

But if the final 10,000 sq km bear no fruit, there is nowhere else to look. A Malaysian Transport Ministry official told The Straits Times there was just not enough data from the debris that has been found - mostly washed up on the eastern African coast - to yield a new likely location for the Boeing 777.

For now, the endeavour of the past two years seems wasted. In the 2009 Air France crash, it took about 21 months before an underwater search area was decided on and wreckage was found within weeks.

The MH370 search, on the other hand, began just 10 days after the plane went missing, with no result nearly 30 months on.

Granted, the location of AF447 was easier to track thanks to the hundreds of items found in the first weeks of the search. But the lesson for the authorities in the MH370 case is perhaps that, instead of just being seen to be doing the right thing, they ought to have made a call on the search based on more than an educated guess.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2016, with the headline 'Lessons from MH370 search'. Print Edition | Subscribe