Update as of 2 a.m. EDT: The debris that's washed ashore on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean is most likely from a Boeing 777 airplane, the same type as the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, Malaysia's deputy transport minister said on Thursday.
"It is almost certain that the flaperon is from a Boeing 777 aircraft. Our chief investigator here told me this,” Deputy Transport Minister Abdul Aziz Kaprawi said, according to Reuters.
Given that there are no other missing Boeing 777 planes, if the debris is confirmed to be from such an aircraft, it would be the first wreckage of the missing plane to have been found after a months-long international search that has become the costliest in aviation history.
The Australian government on Thursday acknowledged it was aware of airplane debris that's washed ashore on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, and said Malaysia would be responsible for investigating the findings, which could lead to unlocking the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370's disappearance in March 2014. The Perth-based Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) has so far led the search for the missing plane in the southern Indian Ocean.
The debris, which was discovered by a crew cleaning the coastline of Réunion Island, a French territory near Madagascar in Africa, could provide long-awaited answers to the mystery of the missing plane. The Boeing 777-200 went missing while on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board.
Malaysia “is managing this examination with the assistance of Boeing, the BEA (Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la Sécurité de l'Aviation Civile), the National Transportation Safety Bureau (US) and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau,” Warren Truss, Australia’s deputy prime minister, said in the statement. “In the event that the wreckage is identified as being from MH370 on La Reunion Island, it would be consistent with other analysis and modelling that the resting place of the aircraft is in the southern Indian Ocean.”
Air safety investigators have a "high degree of confidence" that the debris is a flaperon or wing flap that contains an element unique to Boeing 777 aircrafts, a U.S. official reportedly said.
An unprecedented international search for the plane has been ongoing for over a year and has become the costliest search in aviation history. In its latest update, the JACC said that over 21,000 square miles of the 46,332 square miles of search area has so far been scoured.
The focus of the search has now turned to the tiny Indian Ocean island of Reunion after the debris was discovered Wednesday.
“With regards to the reports of the discovery of an aircraft flaperon at Reunion Island, Malaysia Airlines is working with the relevant authorities to confirm the matter,” Malaysia Airlines said, in a statement Thursday. “At the moment, it would be too premature for the airline to speculate the origin of the flaperon.”
Meanwhile, China said Thursday that it is "seeking to confirm the situation with relevant countries" after French authorities said they were examining the plane debris found on the island.
The Chinese government "will pay close attention to developments," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told Reuters.
Most of the passengers on board Flight MH370 were Chinese nationals. In May, China, along with Australia and Malaysia, decided to expand the search zone after a search of the initial search area failed to provide any clue as to the whereabouts of the plane. The initial search had focused on a 23,166-square-mile portion of the southern Indian Ocean.