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Search for Malaysian jet to be costliest in history

Search coordinator Angus Houston (left) said recovery could take months. At right was David Johnston, defense minister for Australia, one of the nations carrying the bulk of the effort.

Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

Search coordinator Angus Houston (left) said recovery could take months. At right was David Johnston, defense minister for Australia, one of the nations carrying the bulk of the effort.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — As the intensive hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 entered its second month Tuesday, all that was certain was that it would become the most expensive search and recovery effort in aviation history, with an international fleet of ships and planes scouring the Indian Ocean at a cost of millions of dollars a day.

For the most part, the dozens of countries that have contributed personnel, equipment, and expertise to the search have borne the costs while declining to disclose them, with officials offering a united front in saying that it would be callous to talk about money while a commercial airliner and the 239 people aboard remained unaccounted for.

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But Tuesday, as hopes faded that ships would be able to pick up beacon signals from the missing Boeing 777-200’s data and voice recorders, officials were again facing a vast stretch of open ocean with no fresh leads. Many of the governments involved will soon face a tough decision about whether to keep bearing the extraordinary costs, analysts said.

“Each country will have to ask itself: What are the prospects of further investigation and the cost-benefit of it?” said Ramon Navaratnam, chairman of the Centre for Public Policy Studies at the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute in Kuala Lumpur. “If there’s no prospect, there’s no prospect: We have to be very realistic. But it’s a very difficult to decision to make. It’s like someone on a medical support system and you have to determine whether to pull the wires or not.”

Until now, the costliest search and recovery effort ever undertaken followed the crash of Air France Flight 447 hundreds of miles off the coast of Brazil in 2009, reaching roughly $160 million at the time, over the course of two years, according to estimates by experts who participated in that effort.

But the search for Flight 370 is already far more complicated, and may have already topped that total. Some of the ships involved cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a day apiece to use, and some of the aircraft being used can cost thousands of dollars an hour each to operate, officials say.

While there is an international convention that determines responsibility for air accident investigations, there are no protocols or treaties that dictate who pays, specialists said. The most likely case is that the countries and companies participating in the search for Flight 370 will bear their own costs, several analysts predicted.

Even if searchers are able to pinpoint wreckage from the plane soon, it would open another costly chapter, involving undersea exploration and possibly the recovery of parts of the plane, bodies and other evidence from depths of nearly 3 miles.

Angus Houston, an Australian who is the lead coordinator of the search, said that the recovery phase could in itself take “a long, long time,” measurable in months.

In the past few weeks, after the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner shifted to the southern Indian Ocean, a seven-nation coalition has largely shouldered the burden of the effort: Australia, China, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, and the United States. Those countries together have contributed at least 10 government vessels, 14 military aircraft and five civilian aircraft, officials said. At least seven merchant ships from various nations have also participated, and in recent days, Britain has chipped in a naval survey vessel and a nuclear submarine.

But those numbers do not account for all the contributions when the search ranged from the South China Sea to the Strait of Malacca and included many more nations, scores of planes and ships, and hundreds of personnel.

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