After spending more than three years and $160 million scouring thousands of square miles of the Indian Ocean, the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the 239 people aboard remains a total mystery, a dismayed Australian government admitted Tuesday.
In a final report, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau said authorities are no closer to understanding the reasons behind the plane’s disappearance or the plane’s exact location.
“It is almost inconceivable and certainly societally unacceptable in the modern aviation era with 10 million passengers boarding commercial aircraft every day, for a large commercial aircraft to be missing and for the world not to know with certainty what became of the aircraft and those on board,” the safety bureau said.
“The reasons for the loss of MH370 cannot be established with certainty until the aircraft is found,” the bureau, which coordinated the search, said in the 440-page report.
The aircraft disappeared on March 8, 2014, during a flight from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Beijing.
Last year, the Joint Agency Coordination Center in Australia suspended a search after teams combed the 46,000-square mile search zone in the southern Indian Ocean without finding the plane. Two sections of flaps were traced to the plane, but the fuselage has not been found.
Despite other methods such as studying satellite imagery and investigating ocean drifts after debris from the plane washed ashore on islands in the eastern Indian Ocean and the east coast of Africa, the 1,046-day search was called off by the governments of Malaysia, China and Australia on Jan. 17.
“The ATSB expresses our deepest sympathies to the families of the passengers and crew on board MH370. We share your profound and prolonged grief, and deeply regret that we have not been able to locate the aircraft, nor those 239 souls on board that remain missing.”
The plane never issued a distress signal, and investigators believe it flew on automatic pilot until running out of fuel and crashing somewhere in the vast Indian Ocean.
Some debris washed ashore in 2015 and 2016, but not enough to allow any firm conclusions about what happened to the plane.
Search teams analyzed satellite imagery showing objects in the ocean that may have been MH370 debris. The report said the analysis identified an area of less than 9,650 square miles — roughly the size of the state of Vermont — that “has the highest likelihood of containing MH370.”
The bureau noted the Malaysian government is “continuing work on their investigation of the facts and circumstances surrounding the loss of MH370.”
The search was extremely difficult because no transmissions were received from the aircraft after its first 38 minutes of flight. Systems designed to automatically transmit the flight’s position failed to work after this point, the report said.
Subsequent analysis of radar and satellite communication data revealed the aircraft had continued to fly for seven hours. Its last positively known position was fixed at the northern tip of Sumatra by surveillance systems operating that night, six hours before it ended its flight in the southern Indian Ocean.
The bureau said the search had at least led to some important gains in the field of locating missing aircraft on flights over deep ocean areas, with improvements made to systems for tracking aircraft.
“Steps are being taken to advance other aircraft systems including emergency locator transponders and flight recorder locator beacons,” the report said.