Although it has been slow, difficult and frustrating so far, the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is nowhere near the point of being scaled back, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott says.
The three-week hunt for Flight MH370 has turned up no sign of the Boeing 777, which vanished March 8 with 239 people bound for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. Ten planes and 11 ships found no sign of the missing plane in the search zone in the southern Indian Ocean, about 1850 kilometres west of Australia, officials said.
The search area has evolved as experts analysed Flight MH370's limited radar and satellite data, moving from the seas off Vietnam, to the waters west of Malaysia and Indonesia, and then to several areas west of Australia. The search zone is now 254,000 square kilometres, about a 2½-hour flight from Perth.
Items recovered so far were discovered to be flotsam unrelated to the Malaysian plane. Several orange-coloured objects spotted by plane Sunday turned out to be fishing equipment.
Those leading the effort remain undaunted, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott saying officials are "well, well short" of any point where they would scale back the hunt. In fact, he said the intensity and magnitude of operations "is increasing, not decreasing".
"I'm certainly not putting a time limit on it. ... We can keep searching for quite some time to come," Abbott said at RAAF Pearce, the Perth military base coordinating the operation.
"We owe it to the families, we owe it to everyone that travels by air. We owe it to the anxious governments of the countries who had people on that aircraft. We owe it to the wider world which has been transfixed by this mystery for three weeks now," he said.
"If this mystery is solvable, we will solve it," Abbott said.
On Monday, former Australian defence chief Angus Houston began his role of heading the new Joint Agency Coordination Center, which will oversee communication with international agencies involved in the search.
Houston said the search and recovery operation is the most challenging he has ever seen.
‘‘We will continue pursuing the search with much vigour,’’ he told reporters in Perth.
‘‘I have to say in my experience — and I have got a lot of experience in search and rescue over the years — this search and recovery operation is probably the most challenging I have ever seen.’’
He said the search ‘‘could drag on for a long time’’.
‘‘We’ve been searching for many, many days and so far have not found anything connected with MH370,’’ he said.
Houston was asked about Danica Weeks, the wife of missing New Zealand passenger Paul Weeks, after she visited the RAAF Pearce air base north of Perth on Tuesday.
He said he had passed on his personal phone number to her and urged her to come to the centre for a one-on-one briefing.
On Tuesday, 11 planes and nine ships were focusing on less than half of the search zone, some 120,000 square kilometres of ocean west of Perth, with poor weather and low visibility forecast, according to the new center, which is in charge of the search operation.
The centre did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for an explanation of the more refined search area. It also did not say how far west of Perth Tuesday's search would be conducted.
"Yesterday's search revealed nothing that was seen or found that had any connection to the Malaysian aircraft," Houston told Australia's Seven Network television earlier Tuesday.
"If we can find any debris anywhere, that will enable the search to be focused much more precisely and the high technology can then come into play," he added.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak plans to travel to Perth on Wednesday to see the search operations firsthand.
Abbott called the operation "an extraordinarily difficult exercise".
"We are searching a vast area of ocean and we are working on quite limited information," he said, noting that the best brains in the world and all technological mastery is being applied to the task.
The Ocean Shield, an Australian warship carrying a US device that detects "pings" from the plane's flight recorders, left Perth on Monday evening for the search zone, a three- to four-day trip. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the search, said it conducted sea trials to test the equipment.
Investigators are hoping to first find debris floating on the surface that will help them calculate where the plane went into the water.
In Malaysia, several dozen Chinese relatives of Flight MH370 passengers visited a Buddhist temple near Kuala Lumpur to pray for their loved ones. They offered incense, bowed their heads in silence and knelt several times during the prayers.
Buddhist nuns handed out prayer beads to them and said: "You are not alone. You have the whole world's love, including Malaysia's."
The family members later expressed their appreciation to the Chinese government and the people of Malaysia and the volunteers who have been assisting them. They bowed in gratitude but said they were still demanding answers.
The comments were seen as a small conciliatory gesture after relatives held an angry protest Sunday at a hotel near Kuala Lumpur, calling on the Malaysian government to apologise for what they called missteps in handling the disaster.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER DEPLOYED
Australia will deploy a modified Boeing 737 to act as a flying air traffic controller over the Indian Ocean to prevent a mid-air collision among the aircraft searching for the jetliner.
The E-7A Wedgetail equipped with advanced radar will be deployed ‘‘in the near future’’ to monitor the crowded skies over the remote search zone, Houston said.
Under normal circumstances, ground-based air traffic controllers use radar and other equipment to keep track of all aircraft in their area of reach, and act as traffic policemen to keep planes at different altitudes and distances from each other.
This enforced separation — vertical and horizontal — prevents mid-air collision.
But the planes searching for Flight 370 are operating over a remote patch of ocean that is hundreds of kilometres from any air traffic controller.