MH370: Malaysian government declares disappearance of jet an 'accident' and says everyone on board is 'dead'

Civil aviation chief breaks news with 'the heaviest heart and deepest sorrow'

The greatest mystery in aviation history has been declared an accident - even though the fate of the Malaysian jet that went missing in March with 239 people on board is still unknown.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation, said: “We officially declare Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 an accident.” He was speaking in Kuala Lumpur, where the Boeing 777 began its final journey. The aircraft with 227 passengers and 10 crew on board disappeared in the early hours of 8 March last year, on a routine flight to Beijing.

The jet was initially presumed to have been lost in the South China Sea. But ground-breaking analysis of automated “pings” from the aircraft have led investigators to conclude it crashed in the Indian Ocean west of Australia after running out of fuel.

Mr Rahman said he was making the declaration “with the heaviest heart and deepest sorrow.”

“We have endeavoured and pursued every credible lead and reviewed all available data. Despite all these efforts over the last 327 days, the search unfortunately has yet to yield the location of the missing aircraft.”

He described the area where the aircraft is thought to be lost as “a remote location, far from any possible landing sites… with adverse sea conditions with known depths of more than 6,000 metres”. He concluded: “Survivability in the defined area is highly unlikely.”

The definition of the disappearance as an “accident” has caused some consternation in the aviation community. Many safety experts believe the flight was deliberately diverted, with the transponder - transmitting the plane’s identity - turned off to avoid detection.

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The yellow line maps the size of the search area for the missing Malaysia airlines plane

But the declaration is a necessary legal step to enable relatives of the victims to claim compensation from the airline. Article 17 of the Montreal Convention, which governs pay-outs when planes are lost, stipulates: “The carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft.” Under a separate aviation treaty, the Chicago Convention, the term “accident” includes cases where the aircraft is missing.

The Malaysian government has set up a website to help relatives pursue claims. Most of the passengers were Chinese, and there has been widespread criticism in the People’s Republic at how the loss has been handled. Around two dozen relatives protested at the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing against the official declaration, apparently in the mistaken belief that the search for their loved ones was to be called off.

Mr Rahman said: “We have never wavered in our commitment to continue our efforts to find MH370 and bring closure for everyone, most of all for the families of the passengers and crew. This declaration is by no means the end.”

Australian safety authorities are conducting a systematic search of the seabed in the area of the Indian Ocean thought most likely to contain the plane. The project began in the autumn and is expected to take up to a year.

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An Australian pilot searches the South Indian Ocean for the flight

Meanwhile, Indonesian safety officials investigating the loss of the AirAsia jet on 28 December say they believe the first officer was at the controls when it crashed. All 162 people on board died on the Airbus A320, which was flying from Surabaya to Singapore.

Marjono Siswosuwarno, the chief investigator of Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee, said that the cockpit voice recording indicated that the French co-pilot, Remi Emmanuel Plesel, was flying the plane. He revealed that the audible stall warning sounded for four minutes until the end of the recording. He said that flight data indicated that the aircraft was climbing at an unsustainable rate before it began its final descent.

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