BANGKOK — The government of Malaysia and an American ocean exploration company began a new effort on Wednesday to solve one of history’s greatest aviation mysteries: the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 nearly four years ago.
Ocean Infinity, a Houston-based company, could receive as much as $70 million if it finds the plane’s debris field or two data recorders within 90 days, Transportation Minister Liow Tiong Lai said Wednesday at a signing ceremony with company officials at Putrajaya, Malaysia’s federal administrative center.
But under the agreement, the company will receive nothing if it does not find the missing Boeing 777, which disappeared over the Indian Ocean on March 8, 2014, with 239 people aboard.
Mr. Liow called it a “no cure, no fee” agreement.
Under the contract, Malaysia will pay Ocean Infinity $20 million if it finds the wreckage or data recorders early in the search. The potential fee rises in staggered amounts to as much as $70 million, depending on how large an area the vessel searches before locating the plane.
The Seabed Constructor, a ship operated by the company, left Durban, South Africa, a week ago to get in position for the search. Weather can be harsh in the Indian Ocean, and the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, which is nearly half over, offers the best search conditions.
Last January, Australian officials indefinitely suspended the unsuccessful search for Flight 370 after nearly three years. They concluded that they may have been looking too far south in the Indian Ocean.
The aircraft was heading to Beijing, from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, when it deviated from its scheduled route for reasons unknown and headed south over the Indian Ocean, flying for about five hours and, most likely, running out of fuel. Although Malaysia’s military radar tracked the plane’s initial movements, the Malaysian Air Force did not scramble fighter jets to intercept the aircraft.
The plane’s exact route over the Indian Ocean remains uncertain. Experts attempted to determine the likely crash site by tracing communications signals between the aircraft and a satellite, but they could not pinpoint where the plane went down.
Many theories have been advanced to explain the plane’s disappearance, including the possibility that the pilot deliberately crashed the aircraft.
In 2016, more than two years after the plane disappeared, Malaysian officials acknowledged that the pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had practiced flying a route over the Indian Ocean on his home flight simulator. The disclosure added to speculation that he had deliberately flown to a remote area and crashed into the sea.
Two thirds of the passengers were Chinese citizens, and 50 of those aboard — including all 12 crew members — were Malaysian.
Malaysia, China and Australia, which lost six people on the flight, spent about $157 million on the search of the ocean floor west of Australia.
That comes to about $660,000 for each missing passenger and crew member. Critics of the prolonged search have said the money could have been better spent.