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Apr 29, 2014

The cost of finding MH370 is reasonable -- and justified

It's been six weeks since MH370 went missing, but a lack of survivors doesn't mean the search mission is a waste of time.


The search for missing flight MH370 has reached the populist divide where cries of “how much is this costing” begin to drown out the wailings of the distressed relatives of the 239 people who were on board the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 which disappeared on March 8 after taking off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing.

It’s a bit like the nastiness of talkback radio when someone is lost on a bushwalk, or when massive efforts have to be made to find and rescue around-the-world sailors from broken boats only hundreds of nautical miles further south of the part of the Indian Ocean where the flight almost certainly came down.

But this time it’s a whole airliner, a foreign airliner, even though there were six Australians on board.

In Kuala Lumpur, and Beijing, the loss of MH370 is as raw and personal as ever. Here, it is now a matter of the good ol’ catch cry of Emma Chisit.

Which is why it was a prominent line of questioning of Prime Minister Tony Abbott when he announced yesterday the end of the Australian managed and co-ordinated aerial search for possible debris from MH370 and the agreement of the multinational partners for a much expanded sea floor search.

To sonar map the 60,000 square kilometres of Indian Ocean sea floor where expert analysis puts the solid remains of MH370, under perfect conditions, the cost for eight months is estimated to be around $60 million.

But contributions would be sought, Abbott said, from the partner nations involved in the search. Starting with Malaysia and China, who are in at times furious agreement as to the need for answers as to the whys and hows of the loss of a jet which had 153 China nationals on board.

To put this into the context of the ugly chorus line of indignant talkback callers railing on about spending money on the Malaysian jet, Australia spends more than $60 million a year promoting foreign tourism to this country, and far more than that promoting trade.

For whatever fraction of the $60 million Australia spends on the contracts it will soon sign for heavy-duty commercial mineral explorers to tow the best available sonar mappers deep across the target zones, it will be putting itself very prominently on centre stage in Asia as well as before the wider world and its fascination with the biggest ever mystery in the history of civil aviation.

The search to date hasn’t cost Australia very much at all. Because just like searches for bushwalkers, missing rock fishermen, or kayakers in distress, the “assets” used cost much the same sitting around waiting for calls for help as they do being used.

In fact, a RAAF insider noted Australia’s fleet of 18 P-3 Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft hardly fly at all these days — so the hourly costs of operating the Orions will fall quite significantly this accounting period because the fixed costs are being divided by more hours flown.

The legal responsibility for the investigation into the disappearance of MH370 is carried by Malaysia. However, the legal obligation for the search and recovery operation is Australia’s because the flight came down, so far as anyone can tell, inside what under international rules are Australia’s search, and rescue, and in this case, recovery boundaries.

Getting other countries to contribute to the cost makes sense, and is not without benefits to the most callous of those amongst us.


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