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Transcript of Press Conference, 6 August 2014

Live press conference with Warren Truss, Deputy Prime Minister and Martin Dolan, Chief Commissioner, Australian Transport Safety Bureau in Canberra, regarding update on search for MH370.

Warren Truss: …presence of His Excellency the Malaysian High Commissioner and, ladies and gentlemen from media, those in Australia and representing countries from around the world. I am joined today by Martin Dolan, who's the chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, to give you an update on the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

You'll be aware that this aircraft disappeared on 8 March 2014 with 239 people on board, six of whom were Australian citizens. The fate of this aircraft and those on board, of course, has been the subject of international attention and concern for the entire world. At the request of the Malaysian Government, Australia continues to lead the search effort.

Since 26 June 2014, our attention has been primarily focused on a 60,000 square kilometre high priority search area in the southern Indian Ocean and that's indicated on the map on the easel to my right. Two vessels have been undertaking bathymetric survey work in that area, an Australian contracted vessel and a Chinese PLA navy survey vessel. At the present time, they have completed about 60 per cent of that survey work. Around 32,000 square kilometres have been mapped since April and that work is continuing. But today I can announce the outcome of the tender process to select a prime contractor to manage the deep water search. The underwater search will aim to locate the aircraft and any evidence, such as debris and flight recorders, to assist the Malaysian investigation team on the disappearance of flight MH370.

ATSB has evaluated the tenders received and has selected Fugro Survey Pty Ltd as offering the best value for money technical solution to perform this complex activity. The Malaysian Government have also offered equipment which will participate in that search, and of course there is a Chinese vessel already operating in that area in relation to the survey. Now, I had expected that my Malaysian counterpart, Minister Liow, would have been with me today. However, obviously his attention has been taken by the disappearance of MH17. I am anticipating that he will be in Australia later in the month and we will have an opportunity then to talk about future arrangements in relation to the search and how it should proceed.

I remain cautiously optimistic that we will locate the missing aircraft within the priority search area. This search will obviously be a challenging one. Fugro will use two vessels equipped with towed deepwater vehicles and carrying expert personnel to undertake the search operations. The vessels will search the sea floor using side scan sonars, multi-beam echo sounders and video cameras to locate and identify the debris. Fugro is a Dutch company but has a significant Perth-based operation and so they are familiar with the Australian operations. I can't say they are familiar with the search area because this is rather outside of the areas that have normally been surveyed or mapped, and therefore a lot of the work that has to be undertaken will be in areas new to the search team. They have—the Fugro Equator is currently one of the vessels working on the mapping and the Fugro Discovery is currently en route to Perth from the United Kingdom to participate in this search.

Now, clearly it's not clear how long that search will take. We would hope obviously to find the vessel—to find the aircraft on the first day but it could in fact take a year to search the entire area and, of course, the weather conditions will have an impact on what time will be required to complete the task. This is the most prospective area. It has been chosen on the basis of the best expert advice. Now we intend to search it thoroughly and hopefully we will find the aircraft or a debris field or traces of where the aircraft has entered into the water so that we can provide closure to the families involved and information to support the investigation so that the world will know what happened that led to the fate of this particular aircraft.

Martin, if you'd like to add anything, otherwise I will invite people to ask questions?

Martin Dolan: I think you've covered it fully, Deputy Prime Minister. I am happy to assist in answering questions.

Warren Truss: Are there any questions?

Question: When you spoke to us I think it was last month, you suggested that there may be some possibility that the mapping of the ocean floor could pick up an anomaly. Has anything shown up to date?

Martin Dolan: To date, some anomalies related to the geology of the ocean floor have shown up which really indicate that there are going to be one or two areas that will be more challenging to search and will require a more thorough search, but that's all that has been detected to this point.

Question: From the surface—sorry, from the survey you have done so far, can you give us an updated idea of what the topography is like, what's the sea floor like?

Martin Dolan: To the north of the orange zone it is comparatively flat and deep and it rises progressively towards what you can see there, that ridge, Broken Ridge, so from a depth of something like 4800 metres to the north it gets to as low as 1500 metres to the south and the terrain becomes more difficult. We haven't completed the mapping so we are still discovering detailed features that we had no knowledge of, underwater volcanoes and various other things. We are finding some surprises as we go through.

Question: That is 1500 metres below sea level?

Martin Dolan: Correct.

Question: So it rises quite steep?

Martin Dolan: Yes and essentially to the south reasonably consistently but with some undulation and unexpected features.

Question: Are there likely to be canyons or valleys that could hide an aircraft and make it harder to find?

Martin Dolan: Yes, and that's my point about the anomalies are really about detecting those areas that will require a more careful search and more detailed attention.

WARREN TRUSS: I think what's been discovered demonstrates why this mapping was so necessary. The ocean is not just simply flat and featureless. There is quite a lot of geological features there that will be a challenge in the search but we needed to be identified to make it actually possible to undertake the sonar work that is going to occur from now on.

Question: What is the contract with Fugro worth? And just can you give us an overall picture of what the whole operation is costing and how those costs are being carved up with the governments?

Warren Truss: Well, we have given some general figures in the past about what we have set aside in the order of in excess of $80-90 million. The size of this contract will depend on how long we are in the water. If we need to spend 12 months it will be of the order of $52 million, but if we can find it on the first day, well then obviously there will still be substantial establishment costs but it would be much less than the time taken if we take the whole year to undertake the search.

Question: And just on—other governments contributing to that contract?

Warren Truss: Well, Malaysia, as I mentioned earlier, has indicated its intention to provide some assets, some sonar equipment and the like to assist in the search. I would expect to discuss those sorts of issues with my Malaysian counterpart when he comes to Australia later this month.

Question: Could Mr Dolan explain to us how this equipment will work in layman's terms, what it will basically see, for want of a better word?

Martin Dolan: In the simplest possible description, which is to oversimplify it, there will be towed vessels behind ships which will deploy sonar equipment, side scan sonar which will give a sonar picture of the sea floor in detail which will need to be analysed both on board the vessel and ashore in Australia. So it's the expert attention to the data that is being picked up by the sonar, that is a very important part of this and the review of the data when it is ashore is also important to make sure we haven't missed something.

The basic technique is sonar signals turned into data and analysed to get a picture of what's going on. Areas of particular interest, we are likely to get video examination of also using the same towed vessels.

Question: How fast would the vessel go? Would they go side-by-side and in a long sweep?

Martin Dolan: We are still—and we will have to have these discussions with our colleagues from Fugro—working out the details of the techniques to be used, which will vary depending on the typography of the ocean floor. So there is a range of various possibilities. We haven't got the full detail of our search plan because we need to do that on a collaborative basis with Fugro, so there's no simple answer. Sometimes you will have to follow the contours, as they're known. There are others where it's a flat area where you can do long tows pick up the definition you need, and in some areas will be so complex we'll have to do a close examination much slower. We still hope that area can be covered within a year if we have to cover the whole area.

Warren Truss: Just one other comment on that, that this is a towed vehicle, not an autonomous one as we were using in some of the earlier searches, which means it is in constant contact with the vessel so there is some instant information available.

Question: Can you give us the dimensions of the orange block, the 60,000 square kilometres? Can you give us a width and length?

Martin Dolan: Off the top of my head, I can't. It is of the order of 80 kilometres wide and the length therefore is about 700 kilometres in broad terms.

Warren Truss: To put it into some perspective, it is about the area of the size of the state of Tasmania.

Martin Dolan: Or about half the size of peninsula Malaysia for our Malaysian colleagues.

Question: [Inaudible question]

Warren Truss: Yes, the Chinese Government have been kept in the loop and informed about the discussions and their own involvement in relation to the mapping, which will continue for a couple of months and so the Chinese Government have been kept informed with what is happening.

Question: Will the Chinese be—cover some of the costs, part of the costs or not?

Warren Truss: Well, I can't comment on that. They haven't indicated an intention to assist in that way, but obviously they will be involved in future discussions as time goes by.

Question: What, if any, impact has the MH17 situation had on this operation?

Warren Truss: Well, on the water none. We have kept the operations going as scheduled. There have been no personnel taken away from this operation to go to MH17. Clearly, Malaysian Airways [sic] and the Malaysian Government have got two problems on their hand rather than one, two extraordinary circumstances, two unique occasions and so, clearly, they have had to put some priority focus in dealing with the immediate issues surrounding MH17, but that has not in any way interrupted the search and the work that is being undertaken off the coast of Western Australia.

Question: Will the Chinese expert team [indistinct] deep sea search [indistinct] and also are there any kind of competition between the commercial companies [indistinct]…?

Warren Truss: Well, there are two stages to this process. The first has been the mapping of the sea floor which the Chinese have been actively involved in by having a vessel present, and their data will be provided obviously to the second element of this operation and that is the actual search for the aircraft or any remains that there might be. So that information will be helpful to the contractors, along with the information that is provided by the other vessels involved in that search.

Martin Dolan: And if I could add to that, there are Chinese technical experts that are based in Canberra for a considerable period of time that we keep in close contact with so that we always take account of Chinese views and keep the Chinese officials informed of what is going on.

Question: So [indistinct] understand that the Chinese experts are mainly involved in the mapping of the sea floor rather than the deep sea survey and search?

Martin Dolan: That's the arrangement we currently have with the Government of China, yes.

Question: Would the contract that you have signed cover the recovery of wreckage or would that be a separate issue?

Martin Dolan: The contract is to search for, to, if possible, localise a debris field and to map and photograph the debris field. But at this stage, we haven't completed an agreement as to recovery.

Question: How deep can the towed sonar go into the sea?

Martin Dolan: It can get pretty close to the ocean floor, to the depth necessary to get a wide enough swath across the ocean floor. The equipment we have agreed with our colleagues in Fugro is capable of searching the entire area that we have specified there.

Question: The Australian involvement here is purely about trying to find parts of the aircraft. Are you dealing with Malaysian authorities about theories at all, what might have brought the aircraft down here at all? Are we closer to finding out what happened there?

Warren Truss: Well, essentially the investigation is the responsibility of Malaysia because they're the—that is the flag that the aircraft carried. And we're obviously been assisting in that process but that it their responsibility. They've asked us to look after this search phase and that's the initiatives we are taking at the present time. But clearly there will be a high level of cooperation in relation to investigation when the time comes. One would imagine that if a decision is made to recover debris, that it is very likely to be brought to shore in Australia because that's the closest place to bring it, and then decisions will have to be made about what further action needs to be taken there.

Clearly, the priority will be to recover the black box recorders and it could be that sufficient information can be obtained from that sort of data and an inspection to make it unnecessary to recover debris but those sorts of issues would have to be decided on the basis of what we find when the search has achieved its objective.

Question: If I could just ask Martin, are we any closer to nailing down theories as to why the aircraft may have come down [indistinct]?

Martin Dolan: That's an area, as I think I've said before, where it is a Malaysian responsibility to undertake this investigation and the international arrangements in relation to that say Malaysians are the ones who talk about that. I am not authorised by our Malaysian colleagues to speak on behalf of their investigation.

Question: I appreciate it is a delicate subject at the moment but is it likely that Australia will be left with paying that bill for this contract?

Warren Truss: Well, the Federal Government has indicated right early that we are prepared to make a contribution. We see this as an international obligation, an obligation to the Australian families but also to the families of the other passengers who were on board, and we are expecting to make a significant and have already made a significant contribution towards the search effort, and we will do what we need to do to make sure that the search is thorough. But we are expecting that there will be a financial partnership with the Malaysians and potentially others. That would assist in that cost of course, bearing in mind at this stage, each country has essentially borne its own costs. So the Chinese vessel is being funded by the Chinese Government, the Malaysian hardware that's been involved in the process has been funded by Malaysia and other countries—and there are probably a dozen or more of them—that have contributed to this effort, they have all paid their own costs.

Question: When do you expect the deep sea search to commence?

Warren Truss: Well, we are optimistic that it will begin in September. There's sufficient mapping already being completed for obviously to have places where we can start but by the—we expect by the time the sonar search is able to commence, most, if not all, of the mapping will be completed.

Well, thank you ladies and gentlemen, and we hope that the search is successful as soon as possible. We remain determined to put in the maximum effort and we look forward to working with Fugro to move to this next stage of the search so that families can get the answers they want as quickly as possible.