* Australian PM says 'highly unlikely" floating debris will
* Search to enter a new phase, focused on larger search area
* Operation could last up to eight months
* New phase of search operation to cost Australia A$60 mln
(Adds quotes, details of commercial search and background)
By Matt Siegel
SYDNEY, April 28 The chance of finding floating
debris from a missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner has become
highly unlikely, and a new phase of the search will focus on a
far larger area of the Indian Ocean floor, Australian Prime
Minister Tony Abbott said on Monday.
The search effort for Malaysia Airlines Flight
MH370, which vanished while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing
on March 8 with 239 people on board, has so far failed to turn
up any trace of wreckage from the plane.
Given the amount of time that has elapsed, Abbott said that
efforts would now shift away from the visual searches conducted
by planes and ships and towards underwater equipment capable of
scouring the ocean floor with sophisticated sensors.
He admitted, however, that it was possible nothing would
ever be found of the jetliner.
"We will do everything we humanly can, everything we
reasonably can, to solve this mystery," he told reporters in
Malaysia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Britain
and the United States are assisting Australia in conducting the
most expensive search in aviation history.
It remains unclear what caused the Boeing 777 to veer
sharply off its course and disappear from radar as it prepared
to cross into Vietnamese airspace.
Malaysian authorities have still not ruled out mechanical
problems, but say evidence suggests it was deliberately diverted
from its scheduled route.
Malaysia is under pressure to bring closure to the grieving
families by finding wreckage to determine definitively what
happened to the aircraft.
But the empty expanse of water northwest of the Australian
city of Perth is one of the most remote places in the world and
also one of the deepest, making the search complicated.
Authorities had been focusing on a 10 square km (6.2 square
mile) stretch of seabed about 2,000 miles from Perth, after
detecting what they suspected was a signal from the plane's
black box recorder on April 4.
The U.S. Navy Bluefin-21 underwater drone searching the
seabed has so far failed to turn up any sign of the plane.
"We are still baffled and disappointed that we haven't been
able to find undersea wreckage based on those detections,"
Abbott told reporters.
Abbott said that the new search area, which spans 700 km by
80 km (435 miles by 40 miles), could take between 6-8 months to
completely examine, at a cost to Australia of as much as A$60
million ($55.69 million).
The search operations have up until now been handled
primarily as a military operation by the countries involved, but
Abbott said that one or more commercial companies would be hired
by Australia and Malaysia to handle the next phase.
Angus Houston, head of the Australian agency coordinating
the search effort, offered a sobering assessment of the
"We haven't found anything anywhere that has any connection
to MH370," Houston said during the Abbott news conference.
($1 = 1.0774 Australian Dollars)
(Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and