More than 100 days after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared, Australian officials now believe the passengers and crew were likely unconscious as the plane cruised on autopilot over the southern Indian Ocean until it ran out of fuel and crashed.
In a 55-page report released by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau Thursday, investigators said the airliner's behavior suggested the 239 people aboard were unresponsive due to oxygen deprivation.
"Given these observations, the final stages of the unresponsive crew/hypoxia event type appeared to best fit the available evidence for the final period of MH370's flight when it was heading in a generally southerly direction," the ATSB report said.
Investigators did not attempt to explain in the report why the plane made a sudden U-turn over the Gulf of Thailand while en route to its original destination of Beijing on March 8. Satellite and radar data show the plane then flew back over Malaysia and headed for the open waters of the Indian Ocean.
Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told reporters Thursday at a news conference that investigators now believe the plane was likely flying on autopilot the entire time it was over the southern Indian Ocean.
"It is highly, highly likely that the aircraft was on autopilot otherwise it could not have followed the orderly path that has been identified through the satellite sightings," Truss said.
A new analysis of existing satellite data suggests the airliner likely traveled farther south over the Indian Ocean than the area most recently searched with underwater listening equipment, he said. The new search area is about 1,100 miles off the coast of Perth, Australia, and several hundred miles southwest of the last suspected crash site.
"The new priority area is still focused on the seventh arc, where the aircraft last communicated with satellite," Truss said. "We are now shifting our attention to an area further south along the arc based on these calculations."
An underwater search of an area up to 60,000 square kilometers in size will begin in August and could take up to 12 months to complete. The search is already the most expensive in aviation history, according to Reuters.
"The new search area is most likely the place the aircraft is resting," Truss said.
A previous story had the wrong date that MH370 went missing. It is March 8.