Flight chaos in Australia as ash cloud returns

2011-06-21 09:50

Hundreds of flights were grounded today in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Canberra as the Chilean ash cloud returned to Australia with a vengeance, with the chaos due to worsen over coming days.

The cloud, created by the eruption of the Puyehue volcano high in the Andes more than two weeks ago, has looped the globe and made its way back Down Under to wreak fresh havoc.

State broadcaster ABC said the travel plans of more than 120 000 people had been thrown into disarray – with an industry group saying it was Australia’s worst air travel disruption for more than 20 years.

“The ash cloud is denser and larger than that which caused widespread disruption to flights last week,” said Airservices Australia, adding that the plume was hovering between six to 13 kilometres.

“It is also predicted to linger longer over southeast Australia. It is spread in a large band below the Australian continent and is predicted to continue to move to the northeast and east in coming days.”

National flag carrier Qantas suspended services to and from the South Australian capital Adelaide as well as Canberra and Sydney – Australia’s busiest airport – although several overseas airlines continued to operate.

Qantas later announced that all its flights into and out of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra would also be grounded for much of tomorrow, including international routes. New Zealand flights were stopped “until further notice”.

Virgin followed suit, promising to review its services throughout the afternoon.

“We estimate that we will be cancelling in excess of 200 flights tomorrow,” Qantas spokesperson Olivia Wirth told reporters, adding that international arrivals and departures would be delayed until Thursday.

“The experts say we simply won’t be able to operate in this situation. This has had a significant effect on the Qantas Group, but we will always put safety before schedule.”

Qantas’ discount airline Jetstar also called off Adelaide and Sydney flights while Tiger Airways grounded its entire fleet, with no services anywhere.

Virgin suspended flights to Adelaide, Canberra and major hubs Sydney and Melbourne, as well as Tasmania.

Aviation Minister Anthony Albanese said airports could be shut for up to 48 hours.

Ash poses a significant threat to aircraft because once sucked into engines it can be transformed into molten glass by the high temperatures and potentially cause an engine to fail.

John Lee, chief executive of Tourism and Transport Forum, an industry body, said it was the largest disruption to Australia’s aviation industry since a 1989 pilots’ strike.

“We anticipate the total effect on the tourism industry will be something over Aus$10 million (about R72 million). It could be as high as Aus$13 million or Aus$14 million but it’s probably around Aus$11.5 million per day,” Lee said.

“It is a very substantial business disruption.”

Though the ash had circled the globe meteorologists said it was still clearly visible on satellite images and was moving at an altitude where aircraft generally cruise.

“It is the same cloud that has gone right around the world. It is still dense and it is still hazardous to aviation,” said a spokesperson at the Darwin Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre.

The cloud first entered Australian and New Zealand airspace just over a week ago, causing some airlines to ground all flights to affected areas while others chose to divert their planes under and around the plume.

Flights were also affected across Argentina and Uruguay.

The Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre’s director Andrew Tupper said the plume was a rare occurrence and a third loop back to Australia was not likely.
“A third time round would be unprecedented,” he said.

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