Aerial search for missing Malaysian plane called off

– The hunt for a missing Malaysian passenger jet entered a new phase as an international team abandoned its aerial search and said efforts to find wreckage on the ocean floor may take as long as eight months.

After 52 days, it’s “highly unlikely” that any debris will be found on the surface of the Indian Ocean, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Canberra Monday. Malaysia and Australia will hire commercial companies to carry out an intensified underwater search.

The hunt for the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. jet, which vanished March 8 with 239 people, is already the longest for a missing passenger plane in modern aviation history. An unmanned submarine has scoured 400 square kilometers (154 square miles) of ocean floor off the west coast of Australia without picking up a trace of the plane and the search area will be expanded.

“What we are looking to do is conduct as thorough an undersea search as is humanly possible, if necessary of the entire probable impact zone” measuring about 700 kilometers by 80 kilometers, Abbott said.

“If everything goes perfectly, I would say we’d be doing well if we do it in eight months,” Angus Houston, who heads the Joint Agency Coordination Centre leading the hunt, told the same news conference.

Flight 370’s disappearance has baffled authorities because contact was lost less than an hour into a routine trip to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. The widebody plane vanished from civilian radars while headed north over the Gulf of Thailand, then doubled back and flew over Peninsular Malaysia and on into some of the world’s most remote waters.

The Bluefin-21 submersible had focused on an area within a 10 kilometer radius of where acoustic pings were detected on April 8. No signals have since been detected and the jet’s data recorders had a battery life of only about 30 days.

It may take “some weeks” to hire commercial companies to continue the expanded underwater hunt and the Bluefin-21 will continue diving in the meantime, Abbott said. The new phase of the search may cost A$60 million ($56 million) and Australia will be expecting other nations to make a financial contribution, he said.

Aircraft have spent 3,000 hours searching 4.5 million square kilometers of ocean, with no debris found, he said.