Long Search for Missing Plane Could Cost 'Hundreds of Millions of Dollars'

PHOTO: A Malaysian naval ship is flanked by a U.S Navy Sea Hawk helicopter in the search for missing flight MH370 from Malaysia.
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The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is likely to cost far more than the most expensive of previous aviation investigations that include an estimated $39 million needed to sort out the Swiss Air flight that crashed in Canada in 1998, one expert said.

“I expect the cost [to investigate MH370] may well exceed the cost of any of those previous accidents,” Allan Diehl, a former crash investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration, told ABC News.

The frantic search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the waters off the coasts of Malaysia and Vietnam has meant dozens of ships and aircraft traversing thousands of square miles for any sign of the plane.

The manpower needed simply to find the plane could mean a long and costly investigation into how and why the flight went down, assuming the worst, experts say.

“This goes into the hundreds of millions of dollars, especially if you recover wreckage from the bottom,” ABC News aviation expert John Nance said.

READ: US Officials have 'Indication' Missing Plane Crashed into Indian Ocean

After the 2009 disappearance of Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean, which also crashed without a distress signal, investigators found plane debris within six days of the crash but it took another two years for the plane’s black boxes to be found and for enough of the fuselage to be recovered for the cause of the crash to be determined.

The cost to find and pinpoint the cause of the Air France crash cost tens of millions of euros or, as Nance estimated, about $50 million.

The far-ranging search for the missing Malaysia plane includes at least 42 ships and 39 aircraft from 12 countries including China, India and Australia. The U.S. Navy has sent two destroyer ships -- the USS Pinckney and the USS Kidd -- and two planes equipped with the ability to search for objects underwater.

The Navy, which is coordinating U.S. search efforts, declined to comment on costs, referring questions to the 7th Fleet commander in Japan, who could not be reached for comment.

READ: Missing Malaysia Flight: What We Know Now

The bottom line is that there’s no sign of the plane six days after the crash, meaning the investigation into how and why the plane disappeared remains hampered by lack of evidence.

“One of the biggest problems is we don’t know where to look. We don’t know if the plane is in the water,” Nance said. “There’s almost an infinite expense until we have a way to locate [the plane.]”

Nance said there is basically no precedent for a modern commercial aircraft to vanish without a trace, although some smaller planes and military planes have disappeared. But they lacked the technology associated with modern commercial airlines. That the plane is still missing suggests there will likely be a long and costly investigation, Nance said.

Diehl, the former crash investigator, said other crashes that involved long investigations entailed remote or underwater crashes and included a South African flight that crashed into the Indian Ocean and a Swiss Air flight that crashed in Canada in 1998. It took investigators four years to determine the cause of the latter, at a cost of $39 million, according to a PBS report.

Diehl said no matter the cost, investigators will spend the time needed to determine the cause of the crash, pointing out that the Navy and NTSB investigators spent years locating a cargo door that blew off a United Airlines flight that was leaving Hawaii in 1989.

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