Relatives of some of the passengers who went missing on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have launched a campaign to raise a $5-million reward in the hopes of enticing someone to come forward with information about the jet’s disappearance three months ago.
The month-long fundraising drive was launched Sunday on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo.
Organizers say the campaign will have three stages: collecting the funds, hiring a private investigation company to follow up on “qualified leads” and lobbying governments around the globe to change air safety, aircraft tracking and passport control policies to prevent another tragedy like Flight 370.
“The idea of a reward came up the second or third week after the plane went missing, but then nobody did anything about it,” said Sarah Bajc, who is serving on the seven-member administration committee and whose partner, Philip Wood, was on the plane. “We suggested it to the Malaysian government several times.”
Flight 370 disappeared March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 people aboard. Initial searches off the southern coast of Vietnam, followed by a much more extensive effort off the western coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean, have turned up no debris or other signs of the Boeing 777.
In addition to Bajc, the reward committee includes four other people with loved ones on Flight 370, as well as Maarten Van Sluys, a Brazilian businessman who lost his sister when Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, and Ethan Hunt, the Australian chief executive of a 3-D printer company who has experience with crowd-funding.
Bajc said relatives of passengers from Malaysia and China were generally more hesitant to back the reward effort, and some were under pressure from government officials to maintain a low profile.
A detailed official calculus of the cost of the search efforts has not yet been made, but Australia alone has said that it would spend $84 million in 2013-14.
On Monday, Malaysia said that it had spent $8.6 million on search and recovery efforts by its air force, navy, police, fire and rescue department and maritime enforcement agency. It did not give figures for the administrative costs of the effort.
Malaysia Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, last month posted its worst quarterly loss in two years largely due to the disappearance of Flight 370 but did not break out the specific costs.
Malaysian officials are scheduled to meet with Australian search coordinators Tuesday and travel Thursday to China, the home country of the majority of passengers.
The Australian agency that has been coordinating the search is now defining a wider search zone – up to 23,000 square miles -- and soliciting bids from private companies to conduct the next phase of the effort.
Exactly how, why and where the plane vanished remains a mystery. Steve Wang, whose mother was aboard the flight and who is not connected to the $5-million reward effort, said Chinese families are desperate for more details and are trying to organize a lawsuit, but have yet to agree on a firm to pursue the case.
“Our primary goal is not compensation, but information,” he said Monday.
Efforts to extract more details from airline representatives in Beijing have been difficult, Wang said, adding that the attorney for Malaysia Airlines, whom he could not identify by name, had a “terrible, terrible attitude.” The Chinese government was also “keeping their distance from us,” Wang said.
He said most of the families that he was aware of had so far received $5,000 in financial aid from Malaysia Airlines -- a relatively small amount given that in many cases their primary breadwinner was aboard the aircraft.
Malaysia Airlines subsequently offered “preliminary compensation” payments of $50,000. But Wang said many families were reluctant to accept the money because Chinese lawyers had warned them that the terms entailed “lots of tricks” that might jeopardize future payments.
Malaysia Airlines did not immediately respond to a request for comment on compensation issues.
With the search now in a lower-profile phase, a Chinese survey ship, the Zhu Kezhen, has started mapping an area of the Indian Ocean floor based on analysis from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. Another Chinese vessel, the Haixun 01, and the Malaysian ship Bunga Mas 6 are providing support services.
Survey data is being transported to shore weekly for analysis by Geoscience Australia. Authorities expect a contracted survey ship to join the Zhu Kezhen this month.
The ocean floor mapping is expected to take about three months, officials with the Joint Agency Coordination Center said. An underwater search of the expanded area is expected to begin in August and take up to a year.
In the meantime, a working group is continuing to analyze radar and satellite information, as well as other aircraft performance data in an attempt to refine the aircraft’s location. Australian authorities said the findings of the panel’s review would be made public “in due course.”
New possible lines of inquiry have emerged in recent days. Researchers from Australia’s Curtin University said they had identified a low-frequency, underwater sound signal that could have resulted from Flight 370 entering the water. It could also have been caused by a natural event, such as a small earthquake.
The signal was picked up March 8 by underwater recorders near Rottnest Island, off the coast of Australia, near Perth. It was corroborated by another signal, picked up at another station, southwest of Cape Leeuwin, also on Australia’s west coast, Curtin researchers said.
They have defined a zone of possible origin of the sound that stretches in a long, narrow sliver from the Arabian peninsula southeast toward Australia. But they have cautioned that the information is “not compatible with the satellite ‘handshake’ data transmitted from the aircraft, which is currently considered the most reliable source of information.”
Two reports from people who claim to have seen something in the sky have also surfaced in recent days.
One was from a New Zealand oil worker who was aboard a rig in the South China Sea, while the other came from hundreds of miles away, from a British sailor en route from India to Thailand. Both reported seeing what looked like an aircraft on fire.
Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.