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air safety

Jun 2, 2014

MH370 search has no defined limits on time or cost

Now that real public money is about to be spent on the search for MH370 by the Australian Government those who cry ‘Why?’, ‘How much?’ and ‘How long?' are in for some ‘s


The Wall of Hope, and the insistence on answers: Found on Twitter

Now that real public money is about to be spent on the search for MH370 by the Australian Government those who cry ‘Why?’, ‘How much?’ and ‘How long?’ are in for some ‘shocking’ answers.

There is no limit as to how much it could cost or last, as that depends on an agreement at some time in the future to ‘give up’ by the three principal parties involved or for Australia to variously renounce or be released from its obligations.

Those parties are Australia, on the basis that the search is within its Search and Rescue Region or SRR, Malaysia, on the basis that it is responsible for leading or delegating the investigation of a Malaysia registered airliner loss, and China, because it says so.

Australia’s obligations are not limited specifically by time nor money, and are cumulatively based on its being a signatory to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, 1944; the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974; and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, 1979.

These conventions draw upon in various strengths the long standing and universal acceptance of what is known as ‘the law of the sea’ which in turn gave rise to the codified UN convention of the same name, which was negotiated over many years but is often quoted as having taken its current day form from 1994.

None of these conventions envisaged the exact circumstances of the loss of MH370, however the very first was framed in a world in which aircraft did routinely disappear without trace, into seas, jungles, or places unknown, and in some cases into glaciers which have in the fullness of time and assisted by climate change, given up fragments of metal, bone, dried muscle tissue, cargo and personal effects, into a time so far removed from the accident that the victims, their circumstances, and their grieving families, have all been forgotten or themselves passed away.

Australia's Search and Rescue zone, from Christmas Island to Antarctica

Malaysia is the sovereign state responsible for investigating the loss of one of its own airliners. States occasionally delegate such investigations to other states or authorities, and almost always engage a wide range of investigative authorities such as the European, UK and US safety investigators, as well as makers of related equipment, such as Inmarsat, Rolls-Royce, and Boeing.  Malaysia has kept control of the loss investigation and the parallel criminal inquiries, into the background and connections of the 239 people who were on board the Malaysia Airlines 777-200ER  that left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on 8 March.

China made itself a third party by its immediate deployment of at least one dozen military vessels, some equipped with helicopters, on a ‘coming ready or not basis’, in that it sent ships into the zone in the same time frame that US intelligence sources in Washington DC were telling the media that the flight had come down some 1600-1800 kms to sea from Perth.

There were 153 China nationals on board MH370, which flew as a code share with China Southern.  China was vocally unhappy with the Malaysia conduct of the search from about day three, and its ambassador in Kuala Lumpur often sat directly in front of the Malaysia officials at media briefings and was routinely accompanied into the room by a very large contingent of China state media organisations attending those sessions.

In the three nation negotiations in Canberra in which Australia, China and Malaysia agreed on the broad outlines of the continuing search, China made it abundantly and publicly clear that it insisted that the search will continue until there is a result.

In the cultural values of China, ‘until’ can mean ‘forever’. The definitions of historic time are quite different to the less permanent valuations of time in other cultures.

The Federal Budget provides for spending of up to $89.9 million on the Australian coordinated search for MH370, which has since been broken down into a provision for $60 million for a contact now out for tender, for a private operator to manage the included hire of  at least two deep sea towed side scanning sonar devices to scour the Indian Ocean sea floor at a depth of 6000 metres or more along a corridor 800 kms long by 70 kms wide for wreckage from the jet.

That search could take one to two years, or a day, and the terms in the event of premature success are not known.

The $60 million appears to include a private bathymetric mapping of the ocean floor, although China’s navy has already started work with one of its oceanographic vessels the Zhu Kehzen, which returned to port recently with a mechanical issue.

The balance of the $89.9 million is for direct additional costs to Australia in manpower and some assets.

When the PM was questioned in April as to the costs of the first stage of the search, which involved many other states, including Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, the UK and the US,  he described the costs as being sunk (!) in that the fixed capital costs of equipment and personnel were the same whether they were being used for search and rescue purposes or on standby.

The additional costs, in fuel and wages, were not significant.

This argument has been used in the past to defuse populist criticism of the costs of rescuing around the world mariners from yachts in distress in the Southern Ocean, such as that of Tony Bullimore in 1996, as it has been for rescuing lost bushwalkers in Australia, or several people from a disabled vessel off Port Macquarie overnight.

The majority of the expenses involved have to be paid whether the Search and Rescue assets and personnel are used or not.

Australia is seeking a contribution to the $89.9 million in total that is budgeted for the MH370 search in the FY15 accounts and forward estimates, but this isn’t enforceable and perhaps not even likely other than for the up to $60 million for the contractor for the next phase use of private deep sea search equipment.

Malaysia and China are also spending their money on their search assets, and their excess over fixed capital costs of the assets and upkeep is likely to be of a similar order to Australia’s.

In terms of dividing up the $60 million, Australia clearly has a case. As the responsible state with the search and rescue obligation, it might persuade China and Malaysia to divide between them half the cost of hiring and using that equipment or kicking in $15 million each.

This phase of the search is due to begin in August, once the bathymetric surveys begin producing detailed sea floor maps.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.

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16 thoughts on “MH370 search has no defined limits on time or cost

  1. Allan Moyes

    Well the government will take money from the sick, students, pensioners, the disabled, the unemployed and nearly everyone else except the mega-rich in the current budget, so I can’t see it wanting to fork out much for a long and possibly never-ending search. Had it been still afloat with some refugees on board, on the other hand…..

    Maybe some of our obscenely wealthy will come to the party. Think of the publicity.

  2. Confirmed Sceptic

    What search and rescue? There is no rescue obligation, so why the search? Do we routinely look for sunken vessels? There have been plenty of aircraft go missing on Australian soil that no one could be bothered seeking after the first couple of weeks.

    Of course everyone would like some closure on this, but that may never come even if they do find debris. I believe that Australia owed an earnest effort which was delivered. Once the discovery and recovery of remains became effectively impossible a discussion with the main parties should have been held.

  3. BugSmasher

    Agreed Sceptic, this is definitely not a rescue mission. However retrieval is not out of the question and is very important in some cultures – we owe it to relatives to at least make an attempt.

    There is almost certainly something to be learned if we are able to put any of this mystery together, and that may be of comfort to grieving relatives and future air travellers as well. I don’t think there is any merit in abandoning the search at this stage.

  4. Amateur Sleuth

    “The additional costs, in fuel and wages, were not significant.”

    It was mentioned somewhere in the media, sorry don’t recall where, that fuel alone for the search was of the order of $1m a day – that was in the airborne search for wreckade.

  5. Confirmed Sceptic

    Bug Smasher…but why do WE owe it? What if it takes a billion and still no result? If they want to look in international waters then nothing is stopping them. Again…prospects of a rescue? Absolutely go hard. But that’s not what this is.

  6. Confirmed Sceptic

    Nor, by the way, is it our investigation. Everyone wants a believable, palatable probable cause. The chances of the lead investigator delivering that, even if a barge load of stuff could be retrieved I will leave to those less cynical than I.

  7. joe airline pilot

    It would seem that our federal government wisely realises that spending millions of dollars to find a plane load of Chinese nationals is worth billions in economic good will. (Aside from any legal/ moral obligations). ( The NZ FTA with China is worth over five billion dollars p/a to their dairy industry alone.)

  8. BugSmasher

    CS – no one has suggested a cost anything like AU$1 billion for this. But let us say it did add up to that amount eventually. That would be about $43 for each person in Australia. Does that seem particularly unreasonable to you? We are, after all, one of the richest countries on earth. We are also unlikely to foot that bill alone.

    I am surprised (assuming you are in fact a pilot) that you have ignored my suggestion that there is something to learn here. If there is any chance that we can learn something that has a future contribution to aviation safety, then we owe it to ourselves and the rest of humanity that is rich enough to fly on RPT to try and uncover that lesson and make the necessary changes. I don’t know if that will happen but as I said earlier, it is much too soon to give up on that hope.

    How would you feel if new company policy meant you could not be the sole occupant in your cockpit at any time? You could chat up the cabin staff while the FO was answering the call of nature. But you would be protected. Not a bad outcome? How would you feel about having your own toilet so the cockpit door was sealed from gate to gate? Again, not a bad outcome. And lives might one day be saved.

  9. BugSmasher

    As to the “barge load of stuff”, if it includes the CVR and/or the BB, it could be highly instructive.

  10. Dan Dair

    If they’re really going to spend these $millions on this,
    I’m siding with Ben with regard to the Pel-Air plane.!
    (even though he does bang on & on about it sometimes)

    How could there ever have been a ‘full’ investigation into this incident when the ‘black-boxes’ are still underwater.?

    The authorities know exactly where it the aircraft is,
    It is at an easily accessible depth
    & in relatively calm waters.

    The navy could probably recover the recorders in an afternoon, after first spending 2 or 3 days of writing-up the risk assessment.?

    How can they continue to justify NOT recovering the Pel-Air recorders on expense grounds & at the same time be prepared to write a blank cheque for the MH370 programme.?

  11. Confirmed Sceptic

    Interesting comments. I again remind you however that this is not a SAR mission, so no SAR responsibility exists.

    It should be true that a recovered FDR would yield enough information to determine if the act was deliberate or not, and possibly by whom. There may even be evidence to comfort the relatives that a depressurisation took place, allowing them to believe in a painless fate for their loved ones.

    If it was pilot action this will teach us nothing that we do not already know about pilot murder/suicide. It may indeed be the event that galvanises action, but there is already ample evidence that airliners should have the features and procedures that Bug Smasher mentions. Or some other way of safely limiting any one pilot’s scope for deadly actions.

    As to the per capita costs of anything…that’s a way of deflecting the argument. What would happen if a foreign cruise liner was lost in our area? After the rescue would we be compelled to raise it to recover bodies and evidence?

  12. Tango

    A fishing boat went down amidst the more Southern search.

    Australia dispatched a P3, yep, its gone, some debris, no one can survive, too bad, so sad, back to the high profile stuff (and don’t get me wrong, who cares about what was probably an illegal fishing operation).

    At this point, if China wants to find it, let them fund it or find it themselves.

    Australia has fulfilled any obligation under any treaty.

    And as noted, people sick, dying, need assistance and too bad, but we will damned well spend a ton of money looking for an aircraft we know crashed and there were no survivors, amazing.

    Big bucks, big profile, skys the limit.

  13. Tango

    All the warm fuzzy open ended emotional fuh farah aside, how about some hard facts to support that?

    Basicly you propose an open ended budget to find out that there is an period at the end of a book. With that logic you could spend the entire GDP for nothing.

    And yes I am a pilot (non active) and I could care less at this point. Anything we need to have learned we know and the rest is soap opera details.

    “I am surprised (assuming you are in fact a pilot) that you have ignored my suggestion that there is something to learn here. If there is any chance that we can learn something that has a future contribution to aviation safety, then we owe it to ourselves and the rest of humanity that is rich enough to fly on RPT to try and uncover that lesson and make the necessary changes. I don’t know if that will happen but as I said earlier, it is much too soon to give up on that hope.”

  14. FG FG

    Have the MH370 Flight plane being dropped onto a crater of one of the hundreds of active volcanoes on the flight path??

    If any debris have been found yet, -ABSOLUTELY ANY-, nothing can be discharged.

  15. chpowell

    Alternate POV: The USA wants the FDR/CVR found (Boeing: ‘national champion’). Australia must heel to ‘masters’ orders’

    Full stop.

  16. Graham Morphett

    They are looking in the wrong area. Its west of the Maldives.

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