Poor coordination led to flawed jet search

Relatives of missing Malaysia Airlines’ passengers await a briefing in Beijing on Monday, days after the search shifted 700 miles northeast

Lapses in coordination among countries and companies trying to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 led to three days of searches in an area hundreds of miles from where investigators now believe the plane is likely to have gone down, people familiar with the matter said.

The search area shifted abruptly on Friday after authorities more fully merged two investigative strands by international teams of experts that had largely been working separately to estimate where in the southern Indian Ocean naval forces should be looking for wreckage.

One team’s calculations of the plane’s likely speed and rate of fuel consumption were based on radar data and aircraft-performance modeling. Another team worked separately for at least several days using satellite data to calculate the plane’s likely trajectory, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The failure to promptly coordinate the analyses raises questions about the flow of information among the many participants in the multinational probe, particularly in the process of identifying the initial search area in the Indian Ocean.

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The previous search area was based primarily on the satellite analysis. The search area shifted about 700 miles northeast after investigators combined the satellite analysis with updated speed and fuel-consumption calculations, these people said.

The result provided “the most credible path” and the point at which “the aircraft is likely to have crashed into the water,” according to Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

Malaysian and Australian government officials have said the decision to shift the focus of the hunt in the Indian Ocean closer to the coast of Australia—after more than three days of fruitless searches in the previous location—was based on “updated advice” from an international technical team assisting Malaysia.

People familiar with the Malaysian-led probe said it was an evolving process and investigators shared all relevant information with international partners. But Malaysian officials didn’t feel it was their role to ensure that foreign experts were sharing refined data among themselves, one of these people said.

Last week, the acting transport minister told reporters that despite the setbacks, “I do not think that we would have done anything differently” in searching for the plane.

“They don’t have the necessary structure for inter-agency coordination,” said James Keith, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Malaysia from 2007 to 2010. “It has exposed their lack of preparation to deal with such a disaster.”

Boeing Co., which built the missing 777-200ER aircraft and calculated fuel consumption, has declined to comment on its work in the investigation.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which contributed to the speed estimate, said “the teams are working together and concurrently on various aspects of the data,” without elaborating. British air-accident investigators, who are providing technical advice to Malaysia, declined to comment.

The announcement of the revised search area was prompted by a new analysis of how fast the plane may have been flying while it was being tracked by Malaysian military radar after disappearing from civilian radar screens on March 8. The work helped investigators and search teams better estimate where the jet likely ran out of fuel.

Among the entities involved in the latest analysis were the NTSB and Boeing.

But those calculations effectively were done separately from earlier work sketching out a likely trajectory performed by Inmarsat, a British satellite operator, said the two people familiar with the matter.

Inmarsat, which was advising British air-safety experts assisting the Malaysians, was “a long way removed” from the international team’s work and analysis, one of these people said.

On March 24, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that based on Inmarsat’s novel analysis of satellite data—briefed to him just hours earlier by the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch— the plane’s flight “ended in the southern Indian Ocean” and “far from any possible landing sites.”

Around that time, Malaysian Defense Minister and acting transportation chief Hishammuddin Hussein said Malaysia set up “an international working group,” including the NTSB and Boeing, to refine Inmarsat data and “more accurately determine the final position” of Flight 370.

Inmarsat and the British investigators used assumptions in calculating where the plane likely ran out of fuel; those included typical ground speeds of 400 to 450 knots. The faster Flight 370 flew, the shorter its overall range would have been.

“The previous analysis had a range of possible assumptions about the speed, and those assumptions have now been refined,” Mr. Dolan told reporters when announcing the revised search area Friday.

Referring to Inmarsat’s work and the speed analysis, he said: “Bringing those two together gives you the most credible path.”

Before the new search area was identified, Inmarsat had “no Malaysian radar data showing [Flight 370 was] faster” than 450 knots, according to one person briefed on the issue.

By the end of last week, however, four days after the prime minister’s announcement, the international team of technical experts concluded that the plane had indeed been flying faster than 450 knots and therefore used more fuel and likely went down earlier. Officials haven’t said how fast they believe the plane was flying.

The NTSB provided the revised assessment to the ATSB, its Australian counterpart. After making the conclusions public, Mr. Dolan told reporters additional analysis “could still result in further refinement” of the plane’s trajectory and presumed crash site.