Flight chaos in Australia as ash cloud returns

Hundreds of flights were grounded Tuesday 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 20,000 and 40,000 feet (6-13 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.

Qantas later announced that all flights into and out of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra would also be grounded on Wednesday, including international routes.

Virgin soon followed suit, although its Melbourne services will be reviewed at 1.00pm (0200 GMT) and flights into and out of Sydney and Canberra at 4.00pm (0500 GMT).

"We estimate that we will be cancelling in excess of 200 flights on Wednesday," Qantas spokeswoman 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 impact in the Qantas Group, but we will always put safety before schedule."

Qantas' discount airline Jetstar also called off Adelaide and Sydney flights Tuesday 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.

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 impact to the tourism industry will be something over Aus$10 million. It could be as high as Aus$13 or Aus$14 million but it's probably around Aus$11.5 million per day," Lee told AFP.

"It is a very substantial business disruption."

Meteorologists said that while the ash had thinned during its travels around the world 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 spokesman 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, adding that it was a testing time for airlines.

"It is a very complex problem for the airlines to manage. Obviously they have to take a conservative approach."

mp/ajc/slb

 

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