Transcript—Press Conference

Interview

DCI018/2017

24 January 2017

Subjects: The search for MH370

Darren Chester: Well first of all can I thank Minister Liow and Mr Zhi for being here today as we go on board the Fugro Equator and basically thank the crew for the work they've done on behalf of the international aviation community. This has been an extraordinary search effort and it's been in some of the most inhospitable oceans in the world. There have been occasions during the underwater search where sea states in excess of 20 metres have been experienced by the crew. As I've said before, the search for MH370 has been at the very cutting edge of technology and scientific expertise, but it also has been quite a heroic human endeavour.

To have the chance today to talk to the crew members, to thank them on behalf of the Australian Government was very important.

As we indicated in July last year when the tripartite meeting was held in Malaysia between the People's Republic of China and the Malaysian Government and myself representing the Australian Government, as we indicated in July last year the completion of the 120,000 square kilometre highest priority search area, the search for MH370 would be suspended pending any credible new evidence leading to a specific location of the aircraft. I acknowledge today the work of the Malaysian Government and the People's Republic of China, but also the work of Fugro, we have the project director Paul Kennedy with me today, acknowledge the work of our own Australian Transport Safety Bureau, and Greg Hood with me here today as well.

They have worked tirelessly over the past three years in the search for MH370. Having not found the aircraft does not indicate failure; it indicates that the aircraft is not in that 120,000 square kilometre search area. Work will continue in relation to further analysis of data. If there's any more debris comes forward, we will work with our Malaysian counterparts in assessing debris of interest and work is also going on in terms of further analysis of satellite imagery.

So we simply want to thank the crew of Fugro Equator, thank Fugro more generally for the work they've done over the past three years, and I look forward to some comments from Minister Liow.

Liow Tiong Lai: Thank you Minister Darren Chester. We are here to receive the Fugro Equator's crew, and also to appreciate the commitment and sacrifices that make these search missions possible. On behalf of the Government of Malaysia, I would like to once again say a big thank you to the crew members and also to Australian Government and China Government for giving the support in the search for MH370. It is one of the largest and biggest search missions launched ever in the aviation history of the world, and we are very sad that we still couldn't locate the aircraft, and we need to suspend the search for the time being to look for more credible evidence before we can launch any more further search effort.

As you can see there, the crew, we were there just now to talk to them. They told us the difficulty they faced in the deep sea waters. Sometimes in four days they face high wind, strong wind of 140 kilometre per hour, continuously for days and they operate in that kind of bad weather, and they have to be there and to face all these challenges. So I must thank them for their commitment, for their professionalism and for their dedication to search for MH370. We will say that although we didn't locate the plane, but the kind of commitment shown by the three countries, the officials, the search teams as well as the crew members, it is indeed a very, very difficult task and we have overcome this 120,000 square kilometre search.

I would also like to say that it is also with sadness that we have to announce the suspension and our thoughts and prayer will be always be the family members and loved ones of those on board MH370. We will analyse the data, whatever we have now, and from there we look for more credible clue, credible evidence for us to study the situations in the future. So on behalf of the Government of Malaysia, once again I would like to thank Australian Government, China Government as well as the crew members. Thank you.

Zhi Guanglu: Just to say a few words, and we come here to welcome the crew that come back home and we express our grateful to the crew member on board for their hard work, because we know that this task is very difficult for us, that we tried to find the MH370, but right now we have [inaudible] but we can get together to help each other with the governments of Australia and Malaysia to try to do our best, and finally I wanted to say to the Government of Australia and Malaysia, that have given a lot of help to try and find the people on board MH370. Thank you.

Darren Chester: Any questions?

Question: Did you meet with the families? Have you met with the families of the victims at all, and if so, what was said?

Darren Chester: I've had conversations over the past 12 months with representative of the Australian families. As recently as last week I spoke to family members and the conversation was, as you would expect, a very difficult one in the sense that they have been waiting now for almost three years for answers about their loved ones. It is impossible for any of us to fully comprehend their grief and their suffering, and over three years they had many unanswered questions that we haven't been able provide them at this stage.

But at the same time, the conversations I've had with family members, they have been deeply appreciative of the search effort. The underwater search effort now has been going through this 120,000 square kilometre high priority area, they're appreciative of the work that's been done, but understandably they're disappointed and saddened by the fact that they haven't been able to find MH370. Just as I must acknowledge the professional staff involved, the ATSB, the crew on board the Fugro Equatorhere today. I mean, they're disappointed. They're disappointed they haven't been able to locate MH370. That's a disappointment I share with them.

Question: Minister, is it time to suggest, as I think Mr Kennedy suggested in July, that MH370 was in fact piloted at the end of the flight and flown beyond the target search area, as many professional pilots and investigators believe?

Darren Chester: Well it's probably best if I refer questions regarding the last movements of MH370 to the ATSB, and Greg is here and can answer that question more fully. But we must acknowledge throughout this entire search effort there has been a limited amount of data available to the ATSB and international experts. I'm not here to second-guess the experts. I know in the absence of finding the aircraft there'll be a lot of theories put forward, and that's entirely understandable, but we're talking …

Question: [Interrupts] Do you reject it as a possibility, Minister?

Darren Chester: It would be best if I finish the question. We're talking about a search which has occurred 2,600 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia, in an area of the ocean which is in excess of four kilometres deep, up to six kilometres deep. It has been a staggeringly difficult search, and I want to congratulate the search effort in that regard. But in terms of the last available information provided through the handshake, the satellite handshake, it indicated that MH370 was in a rapid state of descent, and reinforced the ATSB decision in terms of formulating the highest priority search area. So it might be perhaps better if I allowed Greg to answer that question more specifically. But we have been relying on the most current information that's available to us, and we made decisions based on that.

Greg Hood: Thanks Minister. Certainly, our last report indicates that the analysis of the wing flap is that it was retracted, non-deployed, and the burst frequency offset indicates a rapid rate of descent, which is suggestive of the aircraft not being in control at the end of the flight. However, everybody has a theory [indistinct].

Question: So is it rejected as a possibility [indistinct]?

Greg Hood: Based on the evidence it's highly likely that the aircraft wasn't under control at the end of the flight. And I might add that obviously experts from around the world have contributed to the definition of the search area, so we're using the best possible science that's available to define that search area.

Question: So that kind of behaviour is eliminated in your view as a possibility?

Greg Hood: I don't think anything can be eliminated, unless of course we find the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. But based on the evidence available by the experts, it's highly suggestive of the fact that the aircraft wasn't being controlled at the end of flight.

Question: Mr Hood, last month the ATSB said that there was a possibility the plane could be further north than the search area that's being combed. Is it disappointing that the search hasn't been expanded further north?

Greg Hood: So once again, the panel of experts got together in early November, and basically, having eliminated the 120,000 square kilometres- it's like when you lose your car keys—if you're looking for the most likely spot where you put your car keys, if they're not there, that's been eliminated and then you move to the next likely spot. So it's highly likely that the area now defined by the experts contains the aircraft, but that's not [indistinct].

Question: So why wouldn't you expand the search area further north?

Greg Hood: That's a question for the governments.

Question: Can I ask the Malaysian minister a question? Could you just give us some more information about your [indistinct] reward of millions of ringgits for any private venture that finds MH370. Could you just clarify …

(Wind interference in microphone becomes strong at this stage of doorstop. Audio is affected)

Liow Tiong Lai: That is as long as [indistinct]. We will [indistinct] that we have [indistinct] essentially. We will continue with the work on the data. The [indistinct] suspended search [indistinct] but that is only a [indistinct].

Question: So that's the Deputy Minister's personal [indistinct], not the government?

Liow Tiong Lai: That is not the government [indistinct].

Question: Just to clarify, there is no- the Malaysian Government is not offering [indistinct] …

Liow Tiong Lai: Yes, we are not having [indistinct] such a decision.

Question: Can you confirm that families have now been asked to hand over any personal items which have been recovered so they can be used as part of the investigation?

Liow Tiong Lai: Yes, I think we [indistinct] to track whatever personal belongings, and we have sent it to the criminal investigation team to further analyse the personal belongings.

Question: And so why hasn't that been done before now?

Liow Tiong Lai: We have been doing it all this time. Yeah, all the time, and recently we just received a call from the Australian ATSB, and we will actually collect whatever personal belonging and analyse it.

Question: But they were given them and now you're asking for them back. Is there a reason for that, you think it may help with the investigation?

Liow Tiong Lai: Well whatever personal belongings will be sent to the criminal investigation team, and the special team. There are two investigation teams here. There's one, the [indistinct] team MH370 investigation team is a technical investigation team, and an [indistinct]. The other one will be the criminal investigation team, headed by Malaysian Government. So these are separate investigations.

Question: So while the search has been suspended, this is further hope for families that you will take it up again, dependent on the outcome of these two separate investigations?

Liow Tiong Lai: Yes, the analysis of the data will continue, investigation will continue. We are not- we just suspended and people can see what [indistinct]. But analysis of the data will continue. So I will say that we do not want to raise too high a hope to the family members, but the commitment to continue to analyse data will be there.

Question: Minister, Mr Hood just said there's a good chance that the area to the north may well be where the planes lies. Having done 120,000 square kilometres, why wouldn't you just do that final 25,000 square kilometres that they've suggested that you comb?

Liow Tiong Lai: Well I will say just now, the expert team has shown to us that is the most probable area after the suspension of 120,000 square kilometre search. And we need more. The decision is that we need more empirical evidence before we move to the next search area.

Question: I just have a question for Minister Chester. Minister, do you think that China has made a big enough contribution to the search, and has paid enough to the search? Some aviation experts have criticised China, given that they've only contributed $20 million, which is well below what Australia and Malaysia has contributed.

Darren Chester: I offer no criticism whatsoever. It's been a tripartite approach to solving what has been an incredibly difficult mystery. Obviously there's been in the order of $200 million spent on the underwater search effort; the Malaysian Government has contributed the majority of the resources in that regard. The People's Republic of China has assisted with the provision of search vessels, a very important contribution, and the Australian Government has also contributed in the order of $60 million. I think it's been an extraordinary example of the international community working together on a particularly difficult issue. I offer no criticism to our partners whatsoever.

Question: Minister, I understand that you and Minister Liow had a meeting yesterday about MH370. Can you tell us a little bit about what you discussed and what was agreed?

Darren Chester: Well it was an informal meeting, just to catch up on the latest information in relation to the search, as we've discussed here today and in the wake of the communique we released last week. So it was really an extension on our ongoing work in partnership with the Malaysian Government. Obviously the Australian Government's had a key role on the underwater search effort, and it's an opportunity for the ATSB to brief Minister Liow on the work they've been doing. It was our first chance to catch up face-to-face since July last year, so it was important to take that opportunity while he was in Perth to have those discussions. But the most important thing has been our opportunity to come here today, to walk on board Fugro Equator, to meet with the crew and to sincerely thank them for the work they've done.

Question: There was some talk a group representing the families of the victims was going to present letters to you two yesterday. Did in fact that happen?

Darren Chester: I'll get Minister Liow to answer in just a moment. I understand though that there's been discussions with our departmental staff, and there will be an opportunity for those representatives of the family to meet directly with Minister Liow later on today here in Perth.

Liow Tiong Lai: I'll be receiving the letters today, I'll be meeting them, and we hope that we can have of course a good discussion. Malaysia and Australia conducted a bilateral meeting yesterday to discuss a way forward after the suspension of the search. First, I must thank the tripartite commitment of Australia, China, Malaysia, to continue to commit these modern search [indistinct]. And we will continue to analyse whatever data that we have, and we- Malaysia will set up a response team, that whatever debris that collected will be collected Malaysia Government, and analyse it, and maybe we'll send to Australia, to the ATSB for further analysis. That is on the future work to continue to look at it that way.

So far we have collected about 25 pieces of debris; three confirmed [indistinct], five most of the [indistinct], and the rest is still under evaluations. So we will continue to work on the debris, work with all the countries concerned, all the coastal countries along South Africa, Mozambique, Mauritius, Madagascar and the rest of the countries. So we are committed to continue with our search for the debris, and from there on we hope we can get more credible evidence in the search for MH370.

Question: How big is your team, Minister, in Malaysia, given that this search is now effectively going to go back to your country and be focused from there and coordinated from there. How big is this operation in your country?

Liow Tiong Lai: Well yes, we have a high level [indistinct] chaired by my Director General of Department of Civil Aviation. It is a big department coordinated among all other agencies in the Ministry, in the Government. We also work very closely with Australia and China, will continue. The relationship that we have with ATSB, with China CAAC will continue, and we are confident that this team [inaudible] in our work.

Question: Do you have a number, Sir, for the number of dedicated staff on this matter?

 Liow Tiong Lai: Oh yes, we have the whole department, the Department of Civil Aviation is also supported by the Minister of Transport and Ministries of Foreign Affairs. It is all there to assist in this important search.

Unidentified speaker: Can we make this the last one, please?

Question: Minister, in regard to the debris drift modelling, do you think that there's going to be so much more work to go with that that there may be a breakthrough, or do we need to see more debris washing up before there may be a breakthrough?

Liow Tiong Lai: Yeah, we are thinking that there'll be more debris washing up in a short time to come, and at the moment we are basing on this new [indistinct] of debris, the drifting pattern to locate the aircraft. So we are hopeful that we can get more data from this debris.