The Australian prime minister has said it is “highly unlikely” debris from missing flight MH370 will ever be found on the ocean surface.
Tony Abbott said the hunt for the Malaysia Airlines jet will now shift away from visual searches by boats and planes and focus on underwater operations using sophisticated sensors.
The search area had been narrowed to where officials believed the plane’s black box flight recorder was and where they thought they would find some wreckage.
This is to be widened to include a larger area of the Indian Ocean floor, which could take up to eight months to search thoroughly.
Mr Abbott said: “I am now required to say to you that it is highly unlikely at this stage that we will find any aircraft debris on the ocean surface.
“By this stage, 52 days into the search, most material would have become waterlogged and sunk.”
He added the US Navy’s Bluefin-21 underwater vehicle had finished scouring the initial search area off Australia’s western coast and had not yet found anything.
“I want the families to know, I want the world to know, that Australia will not shirk its responsibilities in this area,” he said.
“We will do everything we humanly can… to solve this mystery.
“We will not let people down and while the search will be moving to a new phase in coming weeks, it certainly is not ending.”
However, he acknowledged it was also possible no material from the aircraft would ever be found.
“Of course it’s possible, but that would be a terrible outcome because it would leave families with a baffling uncertainty forever,” he added.
“The aircraft plainly cannot disappear – it must be somewhere.”
Radar and satellite data show the jet, which was carrying 239 passengers and crew when it disappeared mid-way through a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, veered off course on March 8 for unknown reasons.
Analysis suggests it would have run out of fuel in a remote section of the Indian Ocean.
The next phase of the underwater search will include searching an area 430 miles long and 50 miles wide where it is most likely the plane came down.
Angus Houston, who is spearheading the search, said: “If everything goes perfectly, I would say we’ll be doing well if we do it in eight months.”
He said it could take much longer because of the weather and technical issues.
The news will come as a fresh blow to the families of the passengers who have been waiting to learn what happened to the flight.
Selamat Omar, whose 29-year-old son Khairul Amri Selamat was on the jet, said he still hoped the search would bear fruit.
“If nothing is found in the water, then we look at other possibilities,” he said.
“With no sign of a crash, I have to think my son could still be alive.”
The Malaysian government is expected to release a preliminary report on the plane’s disappearance this week.
Credit: Sky News