BEIJING – Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was on autopilot over the southern Indian Ocean until its fuel expired, Australian officials said Thursday. The hunt for the plane, missing since March 8, will now shift to a new search area to the south of previous efforts, they said.
Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, told a press conference in Canberra Thursday that "certainly for its path across the Indian Ocean, we are confident that the aircraft was operating on autopilot until it ran out of fuel."
Transport Minister Warren Truss said officials had not tried to determine when the plane was put on autopilot. The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing carried 239 passengers and crew, including 153 Chinese citizens whose relatives have been highly critical of the investigation to date.
The new priority search area, still in a remote part of the ocean off Western Australia, totals about 23,200 square miles on a 400-mile long arc that is 58 miles in width. It was defined after further reviews of all existing information, said Truss.
"Specialists have analyzed satellite communications information - information which was never initially intended to have the capability to track an aircraft - and performed extremely complex calculations," he said. "The new priority area is still focused on the seventh arc, where the aircraft last communicated with satellite."
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau released a technical report Thursday to explain how the new search area was identified. The area was actually the subject of a surface-only search during the first month of the investigation,
Mapping work continues of the target area's ocean floor, before an underwater search begins in August. That renewed search, using more advanced equipment than the U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 mini-sub, could take up to 12 months, according to Australian officials.
Beijing businessman Liu Weijie, whose wife was on Flight 370, returning from her very first trip outside China, doubts the investigators' key premise.
"I really can't understand why Australia still chose the southern corridor, as they don't have any concrete evidence," said Liu, 41, referring to the southern section of the possible flight path. "I think they should find the accurate evidence first, then start a new search later," he said Thursday.
Like many Chinese relatives, Li Xinmao refuses to accept his daughter Li Yan, 31, is dead.
"I still think the plane may land on some island or land, there is still some hope for our relatives," said Li Thursday. "I can't believe the plane was operating on autopilot. This is sheer nonsense!" he said. "I am so angry there is still no progress in the investigation. I wish the Chinese government could urge the Australian and Malaysian governments to conduct further investigations."
Contributing: Sunny Yang