Australia's involvement in the search for Malaysia Airlines MH370

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared on 8 March 2014 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. There were 239 passengers and crew aboard, including six Australian citizens, and a New Zealand citizen resident in Perth. Under international convention, Malaysia carries the overall responsibility for the investigation and search for flight MH370.

Initial Search

On 17 March 2014, following discussions between former Australian Prime Minister, the Hon Tony Abbott MP, and Malaysian Prime Minister Dato' Sri Najib Tun Razak, Australia assumed responsibility for coordination of a search in Australia's search and rescue region.

The surface search was coordinated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), and supported by the Australian Defence Force and other agencies. The initial search phase involved 22 military aircraft and 19 ships from eight countries, covering search areas of more than 4.6 million square kilometres.  Civilian aircraft contracted to AMSA also participated in the search.

Following Malaysia's 24 March 2014 announcement that flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean, the search transitioned to a search and recovery operation led by Australia.  

On 30 March 2014, the Prime Minister established theJoint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) to coordinate all Australian Government support for the search into missing flight MH370. The JACC is also the coordination point for whole-of-Australian Government information, messaging and stakeholder engagement, including keeping the families of those onboard and the general public informed of the progress of the search.

The JACC also coordinates all international engagement with the Government of Malaysia and the People's Republic of China.

Subsequently on 28 April 2014, the Australian Prime Minister announced that it was highly unlikely that any aircraft debris remained on the ocean surface and therefore the search for the missing aircraft would move to a new intensified underwater search.


Malaysia is the state of registration for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and as such has responsibility under the international aviation treaty arrangements titled the Chicago Convention for the investigation into the disappearance of the aircraft.

On 26 March 2014, Australia accepted Malaysia's invitation to participate as an Accredited Representative in its investigation into MH370's disappearance in line with the provisions of Annex 13 of the Chicago Convention.  The investigation team established by Malaysia comprises Accredited Representatives from seven countries, and Australia is represented by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB).

The ATSB has also assisted with the examination of debris that has been found on the east coast of various African countries. The ATSB supports the Malaysian Investigation team to examine various pieces that have been located and determine whether they are connected to missing flight MH370.

The First Ministerial Tripartite Meeting

At a Tripartite Meeting on 5 May 2014, Malaysia, the People's Republic of China and Australia agreed that the next phase of the search for MH370 involved three major stages:

  • reviewing all existing information and analysis to define a priority search zone of up to 60,000 square kilometres along the seventh arc in the southern Indian Ocean;
  • conducting a bathymetric survey to map the sea floor in the defined search area; and
  • acquiring the specialist services required for a comprehensive search of the sea floor in that area.

As agreed with Malaysia and China, Australia had led this work through the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB).

Definition of the Search Area

All the evidence—based on independent analysis of satellite, radar and aircraft performance data from many international experts—indicates the aircraft entered the sea close to a long but narrow arc in the southern Indian Ocean.  

The ATSB has been responsible for defining the search area and has been coordinating a search strategy group since May 2014.  The group brings together satellite and aircraft specialists from the following organisations:

  • Air Accidents Investigation Branch (UK);
  • Boeing (US);
  • Defence Science and Technology Organisation (Australia);
  • Department of Civil Aviation (Malaysia);
  • Inmarsat (UK);
  • National Transportation Safety Board (US); and
  • Thales (UK).

The group has continually worked to define the most probable position of the aircraft at the time of the last satellite communications and updated this advice based on the latest information throughout the search. This work has been peer reviewed and scrutinized by a range of international experts.

More recent work facilitated and led by the ATSB includes debris modelling and barnacle analysis through the CSIRO, and review and refinement activities through the Defence Science and Technology Group.


Bathymetry survey of the sea floor provides detailed, high-resolution data that is crucial to plan and conduct the intensified underwater search. In particular, bathymetry provides basic mapping of the ocean floor to subsequently enable the safe and efficient use of equipment that provide sonar images utilized to identify debris from MH370.

Underwater Search

The underwater search is a comprehensive search of the sea floor for the final resting place of flight MH370 led by the ATSB.  In addition to locating the aircraft, the underwater search aims to map the MH370 debris field in order to identify and prioritise the recovery of specific aircraft components, including flight recorders, which will assist the Malaysian investigation.  The underwater search uses vehicles equipped with side scan sonar, synthetic aperture sonar, and multibeam echo sounders, with video cameras available to be deployed to locate and identify MH370. The ATSB coordinates all search operations including planning, analysis of the data with the support of Geoscience Australia, and liaison with all vessels, crew and equipment operation.

At a meeting of Ministers from Australia, Malaysia and the People's Republic of China held in Kuala Lumpur on 16 April 2015, it was agreed that the search area would be extended to 120,000 square kilometres, thereby covering the entire highest probability area identified by expert analysis. It was also agreed that in the absence of credible new information that leads to the identification of a specific location of the aircraft, would be no further expansion of the search area.

At the most recent meeting of Ministers from Australia, Malaysia and the People's Republic of China held in Putrajaya in Malaysia on 22 July 2016, it was agreed that should the aircraft not be located in the current search area, and in the absence of credible new evidence leading to the identification of a specific location of the aircraft, the search would not end, but be suspended upon completion of the 120,000 square kilometre search area.

The suspension does not mean the termination of the search. Ministers reiterated that the aspiration to locate MH370 has not been abandoned. Should credible new information emerge which can be used to identify the specific location of the aircraft, consideration will be given in determining next steps.

Three vessels—Fugro Discovery, Fugro Equator and Dong Hai Jiu 101 (Chinese vessel)—are currently deployedforthe underwater search. More than 110,000 square kilometres have been searched so far.

It is anticipated that searching the remaining area may take until around January/February 2017 to complete, particularly given the adverse weather conditions in the winter months.