CANBERRA, Australia (CNN) — Australian officials are hammering out a new agreement put forward by the Malaysian government that will set out critical guidelines in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
The proposed framework details how Australia will continue to lead search efforts for Flight 370 and governs how parts of the investigation will play out over the coming weeks and months under various scenarios, including if and when components of the aircraft are found.
The proposal addresses three main points, said Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau:
• Handling of debris: The framework outlines the chain of custody for any wreckage, including a specific location where the debris will be taken and protocol for its handling and examination.
• Care of human remains: The proposal addresses sensitive questions of how any human remains found in the southern Indian Ocean will be recovered and treated.
• Widening the search: The document discusses how best to deploy resources, including new underwater search assets, in a considerably wider search area, if the current series of underwater missions by the Bluefin-21 fail to uncover any sign of the flight data recorders or other debris.
“The Australian government is currently considering that proposal from the Malaysians and will respond as quickly as possible,” Dolan said. “We hope to have resolved this within the next week.” He declined to elaborate further on specific details put forward by the Malaysians, explaining that once finalized, details of the agreement probably would be confidential.
The current proposal builds on a high-level agreement put into place several weeks ago between Malaysia and Australia, which established that Australia would lead the search and recovery effort for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
According to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau chief, the earlier agreement laid out specific signposts in the search, recovery and investigative timeline that require Canberra to consult with Kuala Lumpur before deciding how to proceed. The new framework provides further detail on existing and new decision points.
“There’s communication at all levels from Prime Minister to Prime Minister down, including (between me) and my Malaysian counterpart,” Dolan said, adding that Chinese officials have also been involved in the discussions.
Crucially, the safety bureau chief commissioner said he expects ongoing data analysis by an international team of experts in Kuala Lumpur to result in further refinement of the search area within the next couple of weeks. “The area for focus of the search … has already been moved twice, and there’s always a possibility that further work will move it again,” Dolan said.
The safety bureau has three investigators who have been working as part of that team in Malaysia since early April. They continue to study satellite communications data from Inmarsat and details about aircraft performance to determine the most likely area where the Boeing 777-200ER may have entered the water, Dolan said.
“They are literally sitting around a big table with their own computers having conversations with a team leader,” he said, prefacing his remarks by acknowledging that he was commenting on a Malaysian-led investigation.
The safety bureau also has three investigators aboard the Ocean Shield, the Australian ship carrying the U.S. Navy and Phoenix International teams responsible for deploying a submersible, the Bluefin-21. The bureau investigators have expertise in flight data recorders, materials and aerospace engineering, and maritime operations.
But after more than a month searching the surface by air and ship, no trace of MH370 has been found. And top officials in Malaysia and Australia, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, say the next few days of the underwater search by the Bluefin-21, now in its 10th day, will be critical.
That’s because the Bluefin is expected to finish its search in what experts have called the highest probability area: a 10-kilometer radius around a second acoustic signal, detected for about 13 minutes on April 5 by a pinger locator towed by the Ocean Shield. Australian investigators believe the signal is from one of the black boxes on board the flight.
Dolan said finding the flight data recorders remain the safety bureau’s top priority in its mission to piece together what happened during the flight. “It’s even more important for the families of those who’ve lost loved ones to get some certainty about what’s happened, and therefore where their loved ones may be,” he said.
Under the Chicago Convention, which regulates international air travel, the investigation into Flight 370 is the responsibility of Malaysia. But in early April, Australia accepted an invitation from Malaysia to lead the search for the missing aircraft and participate in the investigation as an accredited representative.
According to Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, who heads the Joint Agency Coordination Center in Perth, the umbrella organization overseeing the search effort, that classification allows Australia to contribute expertise to the investigation along with the other accredited representatives, which include the United States, United Kingdom and China.
MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early on the morning of March 8 carrying 239 passengers and crew, including 153 Chinese nationals. On March 24, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that the flight had ended in the southern Indian Ocean.
By David Molko