Search area for Flight 370 to be doubled if plane not found – USA TODAY

BEIJING — The search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared without trace more than a year ago, may take another year to complete, government ministers said Thursday, after agreeing to double the current search zone in the Indian Ocean if the plane is not found by the end of May.

Relatives of missing Chinese passengers, who formed the majority of the 239 passengers and crew on board the Beijing-bound flight, welcomed the proposed expansion of the search area. Some had feared the search would scale down if no evidence was found in the zone identified by satellite analysis as the plane’s most likely location.

After a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital from which MH370 took off, ministers from Malaysia, Australia and China vowed to extend the search zone from the current 23,000 square miles to a wider area of 46,000 square miles off the west coast of Australia.

The plane vanished within one hour of take-off on March 8, 2014. Satellite and radar analysis suggests it veered off course and turned south for several hours before running out of fuel. An underwater search first mapped, then began scouring the previously uncharted sea bed for evidence. Investigators have found submarine volcanoes, high ridges, deep trenches and containers from cargo ships, but not the slightest piece of debris from the Boeing 777 plane.

The search has covered about 60% of the current search zone, and is expected to conclude next month. If MH370 remains missing, the search area will double to “cover the entire highest probability area identified by expert analysis,” said Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss and Chinese Transport Minister Yang Chuantang in a joint statement.

“Ministers recognise the additional search area may take up to a year to complete given the adverse weather conditions in the upcoming winter months,” it said. “Upon completion of the additional 60,000 square kilometres (23,000 square miles), all high probability search areas would have been covered,” added the statement, which made no reference to what would then happen.

Beijing railway worker Zhang Hongjie, whose wife Zheng Ruixian, an insurance saleswoman, was on board, welcomed the agreement on expanding the search.

“I saw a trace of hope. It’s the first time after the accident I felt a little relieved,” said Zhang, 45. “I’m looking forward to progress in their search. As a relative, we could do nothing but wait. I wish every party could do more to search for the plane. Such a long time has passed.”

Many Chinese relatives have expressed anger at a perceived lack of information and transparency from the airline and Malaysian authorities during the past year, and some suspect an official cover-up lies behind one of aviation’s greatest mysteries.

“I think they were searching in the wrong place before, I wish the three countries could collaborate to do more to search for the plane,” said Li Xinmao, 57, whose daughter was on the flight. Despite the passage of time, Li retains hope. “I believe my daughter is still alive somewhere,” he said.

“We are confident we are searching in the right area,” Warren Truss said at a news conference Thursday, the Associated Press reported. “We are confident we have the best search equipment … if the plane is in the area we will find it.”

Truss added that Malaysia and Australia will continue to fund the cost of the search’s next phase, according to the AP.

Contributing: Sunny Yang