Chile ash disruption spreads west in Australia

Travel chaos from the Chile ash cloud spread to Western Australia on Wednesday with Virgin, Qantas and Jetstar suspending flights into and out of Perth.

Several other international services from the city were also cancelled, including a South African Airlines flight to Johannesburg and Tiger Airways to Singapore.

But as the fallout from the eruption of the Puyehue volcano - high in the Andes - entered a fourth day, there was better news for Adelaide passengers, with Qantas, Jetstar and Tiger resuming flights.

Qantas and Jetstar however again cancelled all routes to New Zealand and the southern island of Tasmania, including Jetstar's Auckland-Singapore flight, as well as to the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires.

Air New Zealand had been flying as normal but late Wednesday halted five domestic services, mostly to and from Dunedin due to "increased volcanic ash activity".

While Qantas has taken a conservative approach to the ash, opting to cancel flights, Virgin has largely chosen to fly around or under the plume with all services to New Zealand and Tasmania operating.

But it is taking no chances with Perth, saying the cloud is now lower, denser, and more dangerous.

"The volcanic ash plume is expected to drift over Perth at an altitude which will prevent aircraft from safely operating," Virgin said in a statement.

"As a result, the Virgin Australia Group of Airlines has suspended all flights into and out of Perth Airport until further notice."

Airservices Australia said the cloud over Western Australia covered a band between 15,000-35,000 feet (4,500-10,500 metres).

"Obviously we're in the hands of the weather gods and wind will be the main determinant of how long the cloud remains over the Perth area and affects traffic," said spokesman Matt Wardell.

Qantas and Jetstar followed Virgin's lead in halting Perth flights.

"Qantas cancelled all services to and from Perth from 1:00pm (0500 GMT) local time," said the airline, on a day it also announced it was scaling back growth plans and cancelling aircraft orders due to slowing domestic demand.

"We will continue to monitor the movement of the ash cloud and assess its impact on flight operations as the situation develops," it added.

Seventeen international carriers fly into Perth and it is up to each one to decide whether they continue, divert or stop flights.

Sally Cutter, from Australia's Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, said the lower level of the ash near Perth did pose a risk.

"Volcanic ash makes it dangerous to fly, particularly for jet engines, due to the fact it can cause the engines to stop, so it's really up to each individual airlines to assess the risk they're prepared to take," she told reporters.

The Puyehue eruption has caused disruption to air travel on a scale not seen since the volcanic cloud over Iceland paralysed Europe in 2010.

Flights have also been suspended in Argentina and Uruguay, forcing United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to take a boat from Buenos Aires to Montevideo.

Chilean government geologists have warned of more intense eruptions from Puyehue in the days ahead.

"It is possible there will be a return to increased eruptive activity", Chile's National Geological and Mines Service said late Tuesday.

mp/mfc/mtp

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