The search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 will move to a dedicated under-water phase, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said today.
Mr Abbott, in Canberra, said it was now clear that finding debris on the surface of the Indian Ocean off WA’s coast line would be unlikely.
“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 service,” he said.
“We are moving from the current phase to a phase which is focused on searching the ocean floor over a much larger area.”
Mr Abbott said the wider search area would be about 700 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide.
The Prime Minister said the Bluefin 21 submersible had already searched 400 square kilometres of the ocean floor.
He said the Government was not giving up on the search. But the difficulties imposed could not be underestimated.
“This is probably the most difficult search in human history,” he said.
Mr Abbott said the cost of the search would probably reach $60 million. That would be Australia’s contribution as other countries were covering their own costs.
He said Australia was seeking some financial contribution from other nations.
The chief coordinator of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, said he was confident the search was being conducted in the right area.
"I think we're in the right area," he said.
Air Chief Marshal Houston said one problem continued to be the large amount of silt on the ocean floor.
But there was confidence that something would be found.
"If there is an aircraft down there then there should be some debris lying on top of the silt and thus far ... we haven't seen anything.
Mr Abbott conceded the plane may never be found.
"Of course that's possible but that would be a terrible outcome," he said.
Mr Abbott also defended his handling of the announcements about the search for MH370.
He said he had been upfront and transparent, not only with the public but also with world leaders including British PM David Cameron and NZ PM John Key.
"At all times they've been upfront with me and I've been up front with them," he said.
Mr Abbott said there had been disappointment nothing yet had been discovered.
"We're still baffled and disappointed that we haven't been able to find undersea wreckage," he said.
Mr Abbott said Australia would go back to the dedicated MH370 search team based in Kuala Lumpur to ask them to review the possible crash zone of the plane.
He signalled it could take several months to completely search the ocean's floor.
As the plane likely came down in Australia's search and rescue zone, Australia would continue to lead responsiblity for the search.
Mr Abbott said apart from vessels from Malaysia and China being involved in the search, an Australian Orion aircraft would be on standby in case wreckage was found.