CNN Exclusive: Australia transport safety chief tells what's next in MH370 search

Story highlights

  • Australian, Malaysian officials work on new Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 search guidelines
  • They deal with the widening of the search, handling of debris and care of remains
  • Once finalized, details of the agreement probably will be confidential, official says

Australian officials are hammering out a new agreement put forward by the Malaysian government that will set out critical guidelines in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.

The proposed framework details how Australia will continue to lead search efforts for Flight 370 and governs how parts of the investigation will play out over the coming weeks and months under various scenarios, including if and when components of the aircraft are found.

The proposal addresses three main points, said Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau:

Handling of debris: The framework outlines the chain of custody for any wreckage, including a specific location where the debris will be taken and protocol for its handling and examination.

Care of human remains: The proposal addresses sensitive questions of how any human remains found in the southern Indian Ocean will be recovered and treated.

Widening the search: The document discusses how best to deploy resources, including new underwater search assets, in a considerably wider search area, if the current series of underwater missions by the Bluefin-21 fail to uncover any sign of the flight data recorders or other debris.

"The Australian government is currently considering that proposal from the Malaysians and will respond as quickly as possible," Dolan said. "We hope to have resolved this within the next week." He declined to elaborate further on specific details put forward by the Malaysians, explaining that once finalized, details of the agreement probably would be confidential.

The current proposal builds on a high-level agreement put into place several weeks ago between Malaysia and Australia, which established that Australia would lead the search and recovery effort for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.

According to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau chief, the earlier agreement laid out specific signposts in the search, recovery and investigative timeline that require Canberra to consult with Kuala Lumpur before deciding how to proceed. The new framework provides further detail on existing and new decision points.

"There's communication at all levels from Prime Minister to Prime Minister down, including (between me) and my Malaysian counterpart," Dolan said, adding that Chinese officials have also been involved in the discussions.

Crucially, the safety bureau chief commissioner said he expects ongoing data analysis by an international team of experts in Kuala Lumpur to result in further refinement of the search area within the next couple of weeks. "The area for focus of the search ... has already been moved twice, and there's always a possibility that further work will move it again," Dolan said.

The safety bureau has three investigators who have been working as part of that team in Malaysia since early April. They continue to study satellite communications data from Inmarsat and details about aircraft performance to determine the most likely area where the Boeing 777-200ER may have entered the water, Dolan said.

"They are literally sitting around a big table with their own computers having conversations with a team leader," he said, prefacing his remarks by acknowledging that he was commenting on a Malaysian-led investigation.

The safety bureau also has three investigators aboard the Ocean Shield, the Australian ship carrying the U.S. Navy and Phoenix International teams responsible for deploying a submersible, the Bluefin-21. The bureau investigators have expertise in flight data recorders, materials and aerospace engineering, and maritime operations.

But after more than a month searching the surface by air and ship, no trace of MH370 has been found. And top officials in Malaysia and Australia, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, say the next few days of the underwater search by the Bluefin-21, now in its 10th day, will be critical.

That's because the Bluefin is expected to finish its search in what experts have called the highest probability area: a 10-kilometer radius around a second acoustic signal, detected for about 13 minutes on April 5 by a pinger locator towed by the Ocean Shield. Australian investigators believe the signal is from one of the black boxes on board the flight.

Dolan said finding the flight data recorders remain the safety bureau's top priority in its mission to piece together what happened during the flight. "It's even more important for the families of those who've lost loved ones to get some certainty about what's happened, and therefore where their loved ones may be," he said.

Under the Chicago Convention, which regulates international air travel, the investigation into Flight 370 is the responsibility of Malaysia. But in early April, Australia accepted an invitation from Malaysia to lead the search for the missing aircraft and participate in the investigation as an accredited representative.

According to Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, who heads the Joint Agency Coordination Center in Perth, the umbrella organization overseeing the search effort, that classification allows Australia to contribute expertise to the investigation along with the other accredited representatives, which include the United States, United Kingdom and China.

MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early on the morning of March 8 carrying 239 passengers and crew, including 153 Chinese nationals. On March 24, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that the flight had ended in the southern Indian Ocean.

      Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

    • nr intv moni basu husbands quiet suffering flight 370_00020822.jpg

      An empty space on earth

      His wife never came home from her flight on MH370, and now K.S. Narendran is left to imagine the worst of possible truths without knowing.
    • This handout photo taken on April 7, 2014 and released on April 9, 2014 by Australian Defence shows Maritime Warfare Officer, Sub Lieutenant Ryan Penrose watching HMAS Success as HMAS Perth approaches for a replenishment at sea while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Two fresh signals have been picked up Australian ship Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, raising hopes that wreckage will be found within days even as black box batteries start to expire.

      Is this the sound of the crash?

      Was the sound of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 striking the water captured by ocean devices used to listen for signs of nuclear blasts?
    •  A crew member of a Royal New Zealand Airforce (RNZAF) P-3K2-Orion aircraft helps to look for objects during the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in flight over the Indian Ocean on April 13, 2014 off the coast of Perth, Australia. S

      Search back to square one

      What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Rene Marsh explains.
    • Caption:A Chinese relative of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 uses a lighter as she prays at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 8, 2014. The hunt for physical evidence that the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed in the Indian Ocean more than three weeks ago has turned up nothing, despite a massive operation involving seven countries and repeated sightings of suspected debris. AFP PHOTO/WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

      Bring in the lawyers

      Involved parties, including the manufacturer Boeing, are bracing for a long public relations siege.
    • The painstaking search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 got a vote of confidence Friday that the effort is headed in the right direction, but officials noted that much work remains.
Credit: 	CNN

      Pings likely not from Flight 370

      Official: The four acoustic pings at the center of the search for Flight 370 are no longer believed to have come from the plane's black boxes.
    • INDIAN OCEAN (April 14, 2014) -- Operators aboard ADF Ocean Shield move U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 into position for deployment, April 14. Using side scan sonar, the Bluefin will descend to a depth of between 4,000 and 4,500 meters, approximately 35 meters above the ocean floor. It will spend up to 16 hours at this depth collecting data, before potentially moving to other likely search areas. Joint Task Force 658 is currently supporting Operation Southern Indian Ocean, searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. (U.S. Navy video by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Blair/RELEASED)

      Underwater search on hold

      The underwater search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane will effectively be put on hold this week, and may not resume until August at the earliest.
    • Movie-makers say they have recruited leading Hollywood technicians to bring their experience to mid-air flight sequences.

      An MH370 movie already?

      Movie-makers in Cannes have announced they're making a thriller based on the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.
    • The story of the search

      The search for the missing Boeing 777 has gone on for eight weeks now. CNN's David Molko looks back at this difficult, emotional assignment.