Search for missing Malaysian Airlines plane suspended: When is it OK to stop looking?

After nearly three years, the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was abandoned on Tuesday, as crews completed their search of a desolate stretch of the Indian Ocean, finding no traces of the plane. 

Rob Griffith/AP/File
The shadow of a Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion is seen on low level cloud while the aircraft searches for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, near the coast of Western Australia, in 2014.

Three years and $160 million later, MH370 is still nowhere to be found.

Unable to locate the aircraft and with no future plans in sight, the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 that vanished in 2014 with 239 people on board ended on Tuesday, authorities from three countries involved in the search said. The announcement thus likely ended the most expensive and most technically challenging search in aviation history.

As the last search vessel left the area on Tuesday, the Malaysian, Australian, and Chinese governments have spent a total of $160 million seeking the plane in the 46,000-square mile search zone. 

"The decision to suspend the underwater search has not been taken lightly nor without sadness,” the three countries said in a joint statement issued by the Joint Agency Coordination Center, an Australia-based agency that helped lead the hunt in remote waters west of the country.

However, the decision to suspend the search did not come as a surprise: The three countries had agreed in July to not search elsewhere without more exact search parameters. 

Some of the families of those lost on the plane were outraged at this disappointing ending, especially after a recommendation to shift the search further north was dismissed by Australian government last month, which said that analysis was not precise enough to justify continuing the hunt. 

"In our view, extending the search to the new area defined by the experts is an inescapable duty owed to the flying public in the interest of aviation safety," Voice 370, a next-of-kin support group, said in a statement. 

Some family members have said they suspect that suspension of search efforts was due to a lack of funding. 

Jiang Hui, son of one of the mostly Chinese passengers on the flight, told Reuters that he was "disappointed, helpless and angry," and believes the search had been ended "purely due to a funding shortage."

When the plane, a Boeing 777, first disappeared en route to Beijing from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014, an air search was launched. But after several signals were detected under the ocean and no single piece of debris was sighted, the search soon switched to underwater

Yet, the vast deep-sea hunt also came up empty. As three pieces of debris found washed up the shores in Mauritius, the French island Reunion, and an island off Tanzania confirmed the plane crashed in the Indian Ocean, the search crews still couldn’t locate the rest of the wreckage. 

The officials also recently acknowledged that they had been looking for the plane in the wrong place all along, as without solid leads, investigators have relied largely on transmissions between the plane and a satellite – a brand new technique – in an attempt to pin down the exact location of the aircraft. This team has shifted the search area multiple times over the years as they refined their analysis. 

While many competing theories have emerged, the latest discovery of a home flight simulator owned by the flight’s captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah indicated that someone had used the device to plot a divergence from course, prompting some to speculate that he may have deliberately diverted the plane.

Sakinab Shah, captain Shah’s sister, believes that leaving the mystery unresolved by ending the search will leave her brother forever under a cloud of suspicions. 

"How can they end the search like that? There will be finger-pointing again," she told the AP. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters. 

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