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Reading about a Spanish treasure ship, I found that it eventually created a dispute between the company that found it (Odyssey) and the Spanish government, so the following questions came to my mind (focused on an international ocean wreck):

  • Is the same ownership law applicable to wrecked ships and wrecked planes?
  • Is there any difference between floating debris and sunk debris?

More specifically, regarding Malaysian Flight 370, who owns the debris discovered at La Réunion?

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  • $\begingroup$ Good question -- doubly so considering there are some other aircraft that are still at least partially lost at sea, I'm sure. $\endgroup$ – UnrecognizedFallingObject Mar 24 '16 at 2:51
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    $\begingroup$ I have a friend who bought a Piper Apache that was damaged by a hailstorm. Though the airframe was condemned, the engines, props, avionics, and other miscellaneous parts were still useable. Somehow there's a disconnect between the question you asked and its explanation. $\endgroup$ – Howard Miller Mar 24 '16 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ @TrebiaProject.: True (I don't know the answer, this is only an element that can be used for an actual answer). My suggestion for the flaperon: I think the state (France) owns it, as anything from a wreckage in the 25 km area from the shore is declared to belong to the state. But this needs to be confirmed. $\endgroup$ – mins Mar 24 '16 at 8:56
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    $\begingroup$ I suggest a migration to law.SE. $\endgroup$ – kevin Mar 24 '16 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ @kevin I think is an aviation related law topic, is like proposing aerodynamics of wing to be move to physics. For investigations is really relevant. Taking the previous example it might be the case the state could have requested compensation from Malaysia for a debries they own. That could create difficulties in the investigations. $\endgroup$ – Trebia Project. Mar 24 '16 at 11:30
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Insofar as it relates to MH370 the treaty sections Pondlife quoted would probably work quite smoothly if it were found by a government or someone working on behalf of the govt. The question arises as to what happens when James Cameron goes and finds it. (Inevitable, am I right?)

If it is located by a private party then the law would not be quite so clear. It would fall to courts and there would be legal claims falling under admiralty law, salvage law and those might even be superceded by laws governing criminal investigation at sea.

Generally under ocean salvage law the original owner continues to own it, but the salvaging party is entitled to a substantial award or prize. To complicate matters, there are two international conventions on salvage law, one from 1910 and a second one from 1989. Some countries recognize one of them and object to the other.

If Malaysian Airlines is no longer in business when it's found that will make things even more unclear. Probably the best analog would be the Titanic case. The company that recovered most of the artifacts sued to be declared owner. A US court declared jurisdiction and ruled that as compensation for the cost of recovery they had the right to display the items, but they do not own them.

After a series of court battles, an American company, RMS Titanic Inc (RMST), emerged as the owner of the salvage rights, allowing it to keep possession and put on touring display the 5,900 artefacts it has lifted from the ship during six dives.

From an article in The Guardian

So far no one owns them since White Star Line is long gone. The US and UK quickly hashed together a treaty to declare them a public memorial so the artifacts can't be sold off to private collectors.

An international agreement signed by Britain and the US designates the Titanic as an international memorial and seeks to protect it from being plundered or damaged by unauthorised dives.

  • from the same article*

With all these things at play there is simply no telling what would happen with it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wow, looks quite complicated. Moreover, you mention the salvage law, but after reading about it I understood that there are some countries that have not signed the agreement, so any citizen from that country is "outlaw" in that context. I guess your answer is "complex and depending on the nationalities of the parties" $\endgroup$ – Trebia Project. Mar 24 '16 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ I'm sure if a private party finds it there'll be 50 years of court cases. Of course, I'm not sure what a private party would stand to gain from it unless they're one of these conspiracy people that think there's $20 billion worth of gold bullion aboard $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Mar 24 '16 at 19:25
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ICAO Annex 13, Aircraft Accident and Incident Investigation, says that the country where the aircraft is registered is responsible for investigation and it (or the operator's country) makes the final decision on what to do with the wreckage.

The "State of Registry" is responsible for investigation if the accident is in international waters:

State of Registry

5.3 When the location of the accident or the serious incident cannot definitely be established as being in the territory of any State, the State of Registry shall institute and conduct any necessary investigation of the accident or serious incident. However, it may delegate the whole or any part of the investigation to another State by mutual arrangement and consent.

5.3.1 States nearest the scene of an accident in international waters shall provide such assistance as they are able and shall, likewise, respond to requests by the State of Registry.

And it (or the "State of the Operator") decides who should take custody of the wreckage once the investigation is complete:

Release from custody

3.4 Subject to the provisions of 3.2 and 3.3, the State of Occurrence shall release custody of the aircraft, its contents or any parts thereof as soon as they are no longer required in the investigation, to any person or persons duly designated by the State of Registry or the State of the Operator, as applicable.

Practically speaking, I assume that once an investigation is complete the wreckage is either scrapped or returned to the operator (airline) if it still has any value.

In the case of MH370, that means that Malaysia as the State of Registry (and the State of the Operator) is responsible for investigation and for ownership of the wreckage. But I'm not a lawyer, so if you want a definitive answer then I suggest asking elsewhere.

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  • $\begingroup$ It should also be noted that the NTSB has a policy that if the plane is of american build (Boeing etc.) they will send agents to the investigation if they can legally get them into the country. This is a courtesy for assistance but in some cases accidents are partially investigated by the NTSB (here in the US sometimes) if the country of origin does not have the facilities to cary out the investigation properly. $\endgroup$ – Dave Mar 24 '16 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ This answer is relevant where the aircraft is in the hands of investigators. It doesn't really cover the question of who is the current legal owner of the currently submerged hulls of 9M-MRO and F-GZCP. The investigation of the latter has been completed, insurance claims all paid, yet the hull is still sitting in international waters. Can anyone go and haul it up and take it home or sell it etc? $\endgroup$ – RedGrittyBrick Mar 24 '16 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ Reading the material it looks that the "state of registry" or the "state of operator" decide after the accident who takes the ownership. $\endgroup$ – Trebia Project. Mar 24 '16 at 17:12

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