Investigators looking into the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines plane are confident the jet was on autopilot when it crashed in a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean, Australian officials said on Thursday as they announced the latest shift in the search for the doomed airliner.
After analyzing data between the plane and a satellite, officials believe Flight 370 was on autopilot the entire time it was flying across a vast expanse of the southern Indian Ocean, Australian transport safety bureau chief commissioner Martin Dolan said.
"Certainly for its path across the Indian Ocean, we are confident that the aircraft was operating on autopilot until it ran out of fuel," Dolan told reporters in Canberra.
Asked whether the autopilot would have to be manually switched on, or whether it could have been activated automatically under a default setting, Dolan replied: "The basic assumption would be that if the autopilot is operational it's because it's been switched on."
But exactly when the Boeing 777 began running on autopilot is still not known.
"We couldn't accurately, nor have we attempted to, fix the moment when it was put on autopilot," Transport minister Warren Truss said. "It will be a matter for the Malaysian-based investigation to look at precisely when it may have been put on autopilot."
The latest nugget of information from the investigation into Flight 370 came as officials announced yet another change in the search area for the wreckage of the plane that vanished during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board.
The new search area is located several hundred kilometers (miles) southwest of the most recent suspected crash site, about 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) off Australia's west coast, Dolan said. Powerful sonar equipment will scour the seabed for wreckage in the new search zone, which officials calculated by reanalyzing the existing satellite data.