Malaysian authorities have expanded their search for the missing Malaysia Airlines passenger jet westward towards India, based on a newspaper report that it could have flown for hours after it last made contact.
Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malaysian transport minister, said on Thursday that the search for MH370 was being expanded after the Wall Street Journal quoted US investigators as saying they suspected the plane remained in the air for about four hours after its last confirmed contact.
The newspaper said the investigators based their calculations on data the plane's engines automatically sent to maintenance crews as part of routine maintenance procedures.
That scenario would make finding the Boeing 777 a vastly more difficult task, and raises the possibility that searchers are currently looking in the wrong place for the plane and its 229 passengers and crew.
Hishammuddin said Malaysian investigations showed the last engine data received was at 1:07am, about 23 minutes before the plane lost contact.
On Thursday two sources familiar with the investigation confirmed that manufacturers Boeing and Rollys-Royce did not receive any maintenance data from the jet after the point at which its pilots last made contact. Only one maintenance update was received during the normal phase of flight, they told Reuters.
However, Hishammuddin said: "Of course, we can't rule anything out. This is why we have extended the search. We are expanding our search into the Andaman Sea.''
He said Malaysia was asking for radar data from India and other neighbouring countries. India plans to deploy airplanes and ships in the southern section of the sea, a senior Indian official told the Associated Press news agency.
So far, communications satellites have picked up faint electronic pulses from the flight since it went missing, but the signals have given no indication about where the stray jet was headed nor its technical condition, a source close to the investigation told Reuters.
The "pings" equated to an indication that the aircraft's maintenance troubleshooting systems were ready to communicate with satellites if needed, but no links were opened because Malaysia and other airlines had not subscribed to the full troubleshooting service, the source said.
More false leads
The search has also been hampered by a series of false leads for MH370, which disappeared without trace on Saturday while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Planes were sent on Thursday to search an area off the southern tip of Vietnam where Chinese satellite images published on a Chinese government website reportedly showed three suspected floating objects. They saw only ocean.
"There is nothing. We went there, there is nothing,'' said Hishamuddin.
Compounding the frustration, he later said the Chinese embassy had notified the government that the images were released by mistake and did not show any debris from Flight MH370.
An international search effort is sweeping the South China Sea, where the airliner was last known to be. A roughly similar sized hunt is being conducted in the northern stretches of the Strait of Malacca because of military radar sightings that might indicate the plane headed west after its last contact and passed over Peninsular Malaysia.
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Dozens of ships and aircraft from 12 nations have been searching the Gulf of Thailand and the strait, but no confirmed trace has been found. The search area has grown to 92,600sq km.
Experts say that if the plane crashed into the ocean then some debris should be floating on the surface even if most of the jet is submerged.
Past experience shows that finding the wreckage can take weeks or even longer, especially if the location of the plane was in doubt.