The hunt for doomed Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is likely to be the most expensive in aviation history, Chinese scientists warned yesterday, as Thailand said it had spotted hundreds of objects near the search area in the Indian Ocean.
The annual bill could run to 10 times that of the two-year hunt for an Air France plane five years ago and would cost hundreds of millions of US dollars, they said.
France and Brazil spent more than US$40 million over two years to recover the black boxes from Air France flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 en route to Rio de Janeiro from Paris. Officials halted the operation, which used underwater robots to scour the seabed, after search crews found 50 of the 228 bodies.
But Zhao Chaofang , an oceanographer at the Ocean University of China in Qingdao , estimated that the cost of finding MH370 could total more than 10 times that of the Air France search annually.
Some scientists believe China alone has already spent hundreds of millions of yuan, he added. "If the operation is stretched to a long-term search for years, US$200 million per year is barely enough to maintain the multinational effort," Zhao said.
A senior researcher at the Civil Aviation University of China, who declined to be named, agreed the cost would "far, far exceed" that of the Air France search. Experts said it was unclear who might ultimately foot the cost of finding MH370.
But Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia's acting transport minister, has stressed that the country had not discussed the issue with other nations.
Thailand said a satellite pinpointed about 300 objects near where planes and ships have been hunting for debris from MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, where it crashed on March 8 after taking off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing.
But storms caused Australia to pull back all planes due to continue the search yesterday.
No international protocol exists to assign or split accident investigation costs. Oh Ei Sun, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that in theory, the lead investigating nation should pay.
But in practice, participating nations usually helped with the costs to show goodwill.
Crews from 27 nations, including Malaysia, have mobilised resources and contributed to the search for the plane, Malaysian officials said.
China has 10 ships on the mission, Australia five, Malaysia six, and there is one from the UK. Each of these ships burns at least 1,000 yuan (HK$1,260) of fuel per hour, Zhao said.
The cost of the deployment of satellites will also add up. China has used more than 20 satellites, Zhao said. Each of these satellites cost about 400 million yuan, with an average life span of about four years, potentially costing one billion yuan already, he said.
Additional reporting by Ernest Kao, Teddy Ng, Danny Lee, Associated Press