Finding floating debris of the crashed Malaysian jet is "highly unlikely", Australian premier Tony Abbott said today as the arduous search for the plane's wreckage entered a new phase in the Indian Ocean, with intensified underwater hunt expanding to a "much larger" area.
"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," Abbott said at a news conference.
"By this stage, 52 days into the search, most material would have become water-logged and sunk," he said.
Describing the Australia-led hunt as "probably the most difficult search in human history", Abbott said the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 will be entering a new phase that will use private contractors. It may cost nearly USD 60 million and will take about six to eight months.
"I'm here to inform you that the search will be entering a new phase.
"We are moving from the current phase to a phase which is focused on searching the ocean floor over a much larger area," Abbott said in Canberra.
The new phase will focus on searching the ocean floor over a much greater area - 60,000 square kms.
He insisted that the prolonged hunt for the wreckage of the Boeing 777-200 - that mysteriously went missing on March 8 with 239 people on board, including five Indians, and believed crashed in the Indian Ocean - is "certainly not ending".
"I want the families to know, I want the world to know, that Australia will not shirk its responsibilities in this area. We will do everything we humanly can... to solve this mystery," Abbott said, adding: "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."
Angus Houston, Australian search coordinator, said: "We haven't found anything anywhere that has any connection to MH370."
Houston said he is confident searchers are looking in the "right area", but admitted there could be months of searching ahead using new side scanner sonar equipment.
"It will take time," he added.
"I regret to say that thus far none of our efforts in the air, on the surface or under sea, have found any wreckage," Abbott said.
The mystery of the missing plane has baffled aviation and security authorities who have so far not succeeded in tracking the aircraft despite deploying hi-tech radar and other gadgets.
Meanwhile, a remote-controlled mini-submarine deployed in the southern Indian Ocean to find the missing plane today launched its 16th mission with still no sign of wreckage.
Autonomous underwater vehicle Bluefin 21, a US Navy probe equipped with side-scan sonar which is scouring the ocean floor for traces of the plane, has completed mission 15 and and has commenced mission 16 this morning, Perth-based Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JAAC) said in a statement.
"Both the aerial and underwater search activities for missing flight MH370 continue.
"We are currently consulting very closely with our international partners on the best way to continue the search into the future," the agency told PTI in an email.
The Bluefin will continue to examine the areas adjacent to the focused underwater search area during mission 16, it said, adding that up to 9 military aircraft and 12 ships are planned to assist in today's search.
Today, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority has planned a visual search area totaling approximately 54,921 sq kms. The centre of the search area lies approximately 1,667 kms north west of Perth.
The Bluefin has focused the search on an area defined as a circle of 10km-radius around the second Towed Pinger Locator detection which occurred on April 8 but continued to examine the adjacent areas after no contacts of interest were made.
Finding the black box and the wreckage are crucial for knowing why the Beijing-bound plane veered off from its route and mysteriously vanished after taking off from Kuala Lumpur.
The mystery of the missing plane has continued to baffle aviation and security authorities who have so far failed to trace the aircraft despite deploying hi-tech radar and other gadgets.