US company says it’s close to agreeing deal to restart MH370 search

FILE - In this March 31, 2014 file photo, HMAS Success scans the southern Indian Ocean, near the coast of Western Australia, as a Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion flies over, while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Nearly three years after a Malaysian airliner vanished, it’s still possible, if unlikely, for a plane to disappear. But that’s changing with new satellites that will soon allow flights to be tracked in real time over oceans. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, File)

(CNN)– US marine exploration company Ocean Infinity says it’s made “good progress” on a deal to restart the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370, but the contract hasn’t been finalized.

The statement contradicts an earlier claim from Australia‘s transport minister that the company had entered into a “no find no fee” arrangement with the Malaysian government.

“Ocean Infinity are not yet able to confirm the final award of a contract to help in the search for MH370, but good progress has been made,” Mark Antelme of the company’s public relations firm Celicourt Communications told CNN by email.

“We remain optimistic that we will be able to try and help provide some answers to those who have been affected by this tragedy,” Antelme said.

The Malaysian government also said that the deal had not yet been finalized.

“At this juncture, the Malaysian Government has yet to arrive into an agreement with Ocean Infinity for the search of MH370,” a statement from the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation said.

MH370 disappeared without a trace en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014 with 239 people on board.

In the years since, some debris has been found but the location of the fuselage remains a mystery.

Longstanding mystery

In an earlier statement, Darren Chester, Australia’s Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, said the Malaysian government had “accepted an offer from Ocean Infinity to search for the missing plane.”

“Malaysia’s decision to proceed with the search shows the commitment to find MH370,” the statement said.

Australia led the initial search, after analysis showed the plane was most likely to have sunk to the bottom off the ocean off the coast of West Australia. Most of the passengers and crew were from China and Malaysia, but individuals and families from 14 different countries were also on board the missing flight.

In August, when Ocean Infinity first tabled the offer, it declined to reveal the exact terms of the proposal, but said in an email at the time to CNN that it was willing to “take on the economic risk of a renewed search.”

It’s not clear how much the new search could cost. The original search, which covered 120,000 square kilometers (46,000 square miles), cost roughly $150 million.

Families hopeful for answers

Malaysia, Australia and China announced they were suspending the operation in January, nearly three years after the plane disappeared.

In his statement, Chester said while he hoped the new search was successful, he was wary of raising the hope of families of the people on board.

“I hope that this new search will bring answers, both for the next of kin and for the rest of the world.”

Beijing resident Steve Wang, whose mother was on board the missing plane, told CNN Friday that using a third party to continue the search was “definitely good news.”

“I hope the investigative team can release all the information and data they’ve gathered throughout the whole process and make sure to pass all the information to that firm, which will be taking over the search,” he said.

When the offer was first mooted in August, a support group comprised of families of the missing victims welcomed it, describing it as “win-win.”

‘Almost inconceivable’ plane hasn’t been found

The flight’s disappearance gripped the world in the months that followed its disappearance. Some debris definitively linked to the plane has been found, but for the most part its whereabouts remains a mystery.

What had seemed a routine overnight flight took a mysterious turn at some point following the pilots’ radio “handshake” with Malaysian air traffic controllers as the plane entered Vietnamese airspace.

Competing theories have surfaced as to what led to the plane’s mysterious disappearance.

In its final report released earlier this month, investigators for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau said it was “almost inconceivable” that authorities were no closer to knowing its ultimate fate.

The governments didn’t rule out a future resumption of the search if “credible new information” came to light.

However, in his statement Friday, Chester said no new information had since emerged.

Ocean Infinity’s search will focus on the seafloor that has been identified by experts as the “next most likely location to find MH370,” the statement said.

In December last year, an Australian government report confirmed that teams searching for the missing aircraft had been very likely been looking in the wrong place.

“Given the high confidence in the search undertaken to date, the experts agreed that the previously defined (search) area is unlikely to contain the missing aircraft,” a spokesman for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) said in a statement.

That report recommended that, based on new analysis, a new area approximately 25,000 square kilometers to the northeast of the then-search area should be searched. Australia said, at Malaysia’s request, it would give Ocean Infinity technical assistance and data collected from the previous search.

While the whereabouts of the main fuselage remains unknown, stray debris belonging to the aircraft has been found over the past couple of years off the coast of west Africa.

The plane parts are thought to have been transported the thousands of miles from the suspected crash arc to Africa by strong Indian Ocean currents.

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