SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia on Monday said the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 will enter a new phase as Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted it was "highly unlikely" that any surface wreckage will be found.
The new phase will use commercial contractors with a high degree of specialisation with deep ocean search. It will cost about A$60 million (S$70 million), Mr Abbott said.
The new phase will focus on searching the ocean floor over a much larger area - 60,000 square kilometers - and will take six to eight months, he said at a press briefing.
"I regret to say that thus far none of our efforts in the air, on the surface or under sea, have found any wreckage.
"By this stage, 52 days into the search, most material would have become water logged and sunk," he added.
"I am now required to say to you that it is highly unlikely at this stage that we will find any aircraft debris on the ocean surface," he said.
"With the distances involved, all of the aircraft are operating at close to the limit of sensible and safe operation."
The search area for MH370 has been defined by analysis of satellite data, and was boosted by several detections of transmissions believed to have come from the plane's black box recorders before their batteries died.
A submersible Bluefin-21 scouring a 400 square kilometre zone centred around one of these transmissions has so far failed to yield any results despite searching almost the entire area.
Mr Abbott said the Bluefin-21 would continue its hunt, while Australia in consultation with the Malaysia government was willing to engage one or more commercial companies to undertake the extra work.
"While the search will be moving to a new phase in coming weeks, it certainly is not ending," the prime minister said.