BEIJING — Authorities believe missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was on autopilot for hours when it crashed into the southern Indian Ocean, Australian officials said Thursday as they announced the search for the jet will shift to a new area.
"Certainly for its path across the Indian Ocean, we are confident that the aircraft was operating on autopilot until it ran out of fuel," Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said at a press conference in Canberra on Thursday.
Asked whether the autopilot would have been manually turned on, Dolan said, "The basic assumption would be that if the autopilot is operational it's because it's been switched on."
Transport Minister Warren Truss said officials wouldn't be able to accurately determine when the plane's autopilot was turned on, and have not attempted to. The flight from Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 carried 239 passengers and crew, including 153 Chinese citizens whose relatives have been highly critical of the investigation.
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The new search area, still in a remote part of the ocean off Western Australia, totals about 23,200 square miles and was defined after further review of existing information, Truss said.
"Specialists have analyzed satellite communications information — information which was never initially intended to have the capability to track an aircraft — and performed extremely complex calculations," he said. "The new priority area is still focused on the seventh arc, where the aircraft last communicated with satellite."
The new search area was the subject of a surface-only search during the first month of the investigation.
Mapping work continues of the target area's ocean floor, before an underwater search begins in August. That renewed search, using more advanced equipment than the U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 mini-sub, could take up to 12 months, according to Australian officials.
Beijing businessman Liu Weijie, whose wife was on Flight 370, returning from her first trip outside China, doubts the investigators' key premise.
"I really can't understand why Australia still chose the southern corridor, as they don't have any concrete evidence," said Liu, 41, referring to the southern section of the possible flight path. "I think they should find the accurate evidence first, then start a new search later," he said.
Like many Chinese relatives, Li Xinmao refuses to accept that his daughter Li Yan, 31, is dead.
"I still think the plane may land on some island or land, there is still some hope for our relatives," Li said.
"I can't believe the plane was operating on autopilot. This is sheer nonsense!" he added. "I am so angry there is still no progress in the investigation."
Contributing: Sunny Yang; The Associated Press