BEIJING -- Officials expect to suspend the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 by year-end, transportation ministers from the countries involved announced Friday. Crews are nearly done scouring a 46,000 square mile swath of the South Indian Ocean, roughly the size of Greece, where experts believe the plane is located.
There are only 3,900 square miles left in the area West of Australia. But blistering weather in the Southern Hemisphere's winter, equipment damage, and the challenge of exploring never-before-charted parts of the deep ocean have caused delays.
In a Kuala Lumpur press conference Friday, the transportation ministers of Malaysia, China, and Australia said the search of the "priority area" should be complete between October and December.
After a hunt that has surpassed 2 years, officials tried to balance solidarity with families with the reality check of a mostly fruitless search.
"In the absence of credible new evidence to assist in identifying the sitting location of the aircraft, a 3rd search is not viable," said Darren Chester, Australia's Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation. "I also want to reassure families and friends that we're all on the same chain. We all want to find answers."
The Boeing 777 veered off course and disappeared from radar on March 8, 2014. The Malaysia Airlines flight departed from Kuala Lumpur and was bound for Beijing with 239 people on board. A majority were Chinese.
On the Chinese social media app WeChat, people who identified themselves as family members of passengers were outraged. A post under the profile for Song Chunjie said, "for justice, for the dignity of the (more than) 200 lives on board, and for the safety of future flights the search must go on until the plane is found, the reason why it disappeared is clear, and the people who are responsible are held accountable."
On the social media site family members demanded a meeting with the Chinese Minster of Transportation Yang Chuantang. He's been the face of the Chinese search effort.
At Friday's press conference Minister Yang insisted that the Chinese government has spared no effort in trying to find its citizens.
"Suspension does not mean the end of the search," he said. "Searching for the aircraft still is our priority."
However, if no evidence surfaces that points crews in the right direction, the search could be suspended forever.
Some debris has washed up on the beaches of Eastern African countries, including in Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius. Friday Minister Liow of Malaysia said that 4 pieces tested by France "almost certainly" came from MH370. Eight pieces of debris have yet to be analyzed.
He said drift patterns indicate that the debris originated in the current search area, discrediting recent reports that crews may have been looking in the wrong place.
Western Australia University oceanographer Charitha Pattiaratchi said the airliner could be just north of the current search zone. Dutch company Furgo, which is involved in the search, told Reuters this week that that the plane may have glided to the ocean not dropped in free-fall, meaning its final resting place could be outside of the current search area.
Minister Chester, of Australia, shot down alternate hypotheses.
"Everyone is entitled to their opinion." He said, "I wouldn't second guess the experts in this case. This decision [on search area] was based on what we know on the last communication with the aircraft. It was on a high rate of decent so should be located in the area."
But with less than 10 percent of that area left to search, the ministers said in a statement that "the likelihood of finding the aircraft is fading."
Danielle Lin and Shuai Zhang contributed to this article.