NEW YORK, Jan 20 — The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is over, assigned, for now, to the same corner of history as the hunt for Amelia Earhart: a cold case. An unsolved mystery.
The nearly 3-year-long effort to find the missing jet cost US$160 million (RM711.5 million), the largest and most expensive search in aviation history. For the investigators who scoured 46,000 square miles of the Indian Ocean seabed, there will be no answers. For the families of the 239 victims, there will be no closure.
A passenger’s daughter: Quitting makes no sense
“It is incomprehensible that they would give up right now,” said Grace Nathan, 28, whose mother, Anne Daisy, was on the flight. “I can’t imagine living the rest of my life accepting that people just disappeared into thin air,” Nathan said after learning that the search had been stopped.
For all the technical questions asked during the search — Why did the plane go down? And where? — ending it raises a host of ethical questions: Do countries have an obligation to keep looking? How much should they spend? Is the search for a missing plane any different from the search for missing individuals?
Flight 370 disappeared on the way from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, to Beijing on March 8, 2014. Investigators determined that the plane had veered off course and flown south for several hours, for reasons unknown.
On Tuesday, the governments of China, Malaysia and Australia, which together have conducted the search for the missing plane, said experts last year concluded that the plane had crashed within a vast area of the Indian Ocean north of the search zone but that further efforts to find it would be prohibitively expensive. The governments said they would reopen the investigation only if credible evidence came to light of the location of the plane, a Boeing 777.
Their announcement has pitted victims’ relatives against the leaders of their countries, who said continuing the search was not worth the expense.
“The underwater search for MH370 has been suspended. The decision to suspend the underwater search has not been taken lightly nor without sadness,” the countries said in a joint statement released Tuesday.
Investigators are obligated to continue the search, family members said, to bring emotional closure, to provide the only concrete evidence to explain what felled the plane and to prevent similar accidents.
“It extends beyond me and my family,” said Nathan, a member of Voice370, a group that represents relatives and friends of those aboard. “Of course we would like to know what happened. But millions of people fly every day on Boeing aircraft, and the flying public has the right to know what happened,” she said.
A former pilot: Search does nothing for safety
Experts said little new information would be learned even if the plane were discovered, although the mystery still vexes them.
The Boeing 777 “enjoys a phenomenal safety record,” said Capt. John M. Cox, a former airline pilot and the chief executive of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation consultancy based in Washington. “We now have an open question about the safety of one airplane. That is a major issue and one that will remain open, and no one wants that.”
Cox said that investigators should have completed the search of an additional 10,000-square-mile area that experts identified in December as the possible crash zone, but that ultimately they would have to conclude the search at some point, however disappointing. “We’re not enhancing safety, just by searching,” he said.
Another aviation expert made a similar technical argument for ending the search now.
“No matter what,” said the expert, professor R. John Hansman Jr., director of the International Centre for Air Transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “it’s going to remain a mystery. You’re not going to get closure.”
An MIT professor: Cockpit recorder is no longer useful
Hansman said the existing evidence suggested that mechanical failure did not lead to the crash but that the pilot was most likely responsible. Even if investigators were to find the wreckage and recover the cockpit voice recorder, it would prove useless, he said.
The plane, he said, remained aloft for five hours on a consistent trajectory until its fuel was exhausted. But the recorder includes only five hours of tape, and “what we would have gotten is five hours of silence.” The data recorder, he said, would also be useless because “the plane flew for hours without a systemic problem.”
Beyond the technical arguments for ending the search are the philosophical ones.
Given that no living passengers can still be found, said Peter Singer, an ethics professor at Princeton University, resources should be reallocated to help the most people.
An ethicist: Money could have saved 50,000 from malaria
“One hundred and fifty million dollars was already far too much to spend on the search for the missing plane, so calling off the search now is the right decision,” Singer said.
“It is estimated that by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation so that it can distribute more bed nets, it is possible to save a life for approximately US$3,000,” he said. “If that is accurate, then the money spent on the search could have saved 50,000 lives. Would anyone think that finding the plane is more important than that?”
A Catholic bishop: People still care
But the math to end the search has to be driven by more than just money, said Monsignor Anthony Randazzo, an auxiliary bishop in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia. “This is not a callous dismissal of the fact that we can’t find them, and there is no intention to disregard the individuals so we can make our administration or our paperwork more streamlined. It is a recognition of the limitations of our ability to be able to locate people,” he said.
“That is a very important thing,” Randazzo said. “I have not heard that this search has been halted because nobody cares anymore. In fact, it is the complete opposite. It is an admission of our limitations.” — The New York Times