Malaysia Airlines flight 370

Australia, Malaysia tussle over flight MH370 search costs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 3:15am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 3:28am

Fifty-fifty, a Malaysian official said of how his country and Australia will split the bill for the increasingly massive search for the missing MH370 jetliner. Not so fast, Canberra responded.

Malaysian and Australian officials discussed cost-sharing last week in the Australian capital, but Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss declined to say yesterday whether the country was even considering an even split of the bill for a search that will take months, if not years, and cost tens of millions of dollars at a minimum.

"I don't want to give any indication as to where it's likely to end up," Truss said. "We are talking about this with the Malaysians and other countries who have got a key interest."

The government expects to spend A$90 million (HK$655million) on the search by July 2015. But the actual cost to Australia will depend on how quickly the plane can be found and how much other countries are willing to contribute. And a legal expert said Australia's obligations were murky because of the unprecedented nature of the plane's disappearance.

Countries are continuing to negotiate on how to fund the next phase of the sonar search of almost 56,000 sq km of seabed beneath water up to 7km deep.

Countries involved in the search, including Malaysia, Australia, the United States, China, Japan, Britain, South Korea and New Zealand, have carried their own costs to date. But Malaysian government lawmaker Jailani Johari, chairman of Malaysia's liaison, communication and media committee, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur last week that future costs "will be shared 50-50" between Malaysia and Australia.

The job is much more difficult than another complex and challenging search it is often compared to: the hunt for Air France flight 447. Though debris from that aircraft was found within days, it took two years to recover the black boxes from the plane, which crashed off the coast of Brazil in 2009, killing 228 people.

The French government, the airline and aircraft manufacturer Airbus paid for most of the underwater search and recovery efforts.

Truss declined to say whether the flight 447 precedent featured in the current funding negotiations, but said the question of who should pay for what under the Chicago Convention was "quite complex."

Australian National University international law expert Don Rothwell said the Chicago Convention was not clear on Australia's financial responsibility.

He said Malaysia had responsibilities as the country where the state-owned airline is registered, while Australia had responsibilities towards aircraft in its air space and search and rescue zone. Complicating matters is that the search is in Australia's zone only because the aircraft went dramatically off course.