Airlines return to the sky after ash disruptions

Qantas and Jetstar flights in and out of Melbourne have resumed after the volcanic ash cloud drifting over Australian airspace from Chile started to disperse.

However, passengers stranded by flights cancelled yesterday still face delays, as the airlines have said travellers with tickets for today’s scheduled flights will be prioritised.

While there is relief for some travellers, Qantas and Jetstar flights in and out of Tasmania and New Zealand remain grounded indefinitely.

Tiger Airways has announced it has cancelled all flights to and from Melbourne until 5pm today, revising an earlier estimate of 1pm.

Qantas made the drastic move of cancelling all services in and out of Melbourne, including overseas flights, from 6pm yesterday due to the density of the ash over the country. The combined number of passengers affected by last night was estimated at about 20,000.

I can’t comment on what other airlines are doing, but it’s pretty black and white as far as the decisions that Qantas is making.

Many stranded travellers face large, out-of-pocket expenses on taxis, hotels, meals and alternative fares.
Meanwhile Virgin Australia flights are operating as scheduled, bar a selected few from Melbourne.

Former Civil Aviation Safety Authority chairman Dick Smith said he was amazed Australia’s airlines were thrown into disarray, with Qantas and Virgin were at odds over whether it was safe to fly this morning, due to the ash cloud.

Mr Smith said he those airlines that had chosen not to fly were being ‘‘ultra conservative’’.

‘‘I’m amazed that it could have any affect at all in Australia and New Zealand ... after going two thirds of the way around the world,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s come a vast distance. It hasn’t come from South America to New Zealand, it [has travelled from] South America, across to South Africa, then to the south of Australia and then eventually to Tasmania and New Zealand.

‘‘[The airlines] are being ultra conservative.’’

CASA spokesman Peter Gibson said the industry watchdog had changed its approach to imposing blanket bans on flying since last year’s Icelandic eruption that caused the cancellation of more than 100,000 flights across the world.

‘‘The approach to volcanic ash regulation has changed .. lots of lessons have been learnt since then the approach taken now in Europe [and in Australia] is different to then,’’ he said.

Mr Gibson said it was acceptable for airlines to operate so long as they avoided the ash cloud.

‘‘It is not black and white. The situation depends on where the airline is operating, at what altitudes the airline is operating and a whole range of factors including the nature of the cloud,’’ he said.

‘‘In this case we have some airlines operating beneath the cloud and others choosing not to ... we’re monitoring these decisions and obviously we’re satisfied with these judgments.’’

Virgin Australia was the first airline to fly from Brisbane to Melbourne today about 6.30am.

Virgin spokeswoman Melissa Thompson said the airline had sought advice from the Bureau of Meteorology and the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in Darwin on the state of the plume.

Ms Thompson said planes were taking alternative flight paths and flying lower in areas affected by the ash plume.

"We have determined that it is safe to fly today," she said.

However, Qantas spokeswoman Olivia Wirth said the airline did not fly this morning due to the density and unpredictable nature of the plume.

The Puyehue volcano in Chile began erupting spectacularly on June 4. The volcanic cloud reached trans-Tasman airspace on Saturday night, and is expected to remain over the region for the next few days.

The eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in April last year caused the cancellation of more than 100,000 flights amid concern that glass-like particles formed when lava was cooled by ice might melt in aircraft engines and clog turbines.

In 1982, all four engines on a British Airways 747 stalled when the plane encountered ash spewed from Mount Galunggung in Indonesia.

The plane fell for more than six kilometres before the pilot was able to restart three engines and make an emergency landing in Jakarta.

Volcanic ash can cause engine failure in planes as the particles melt in the hot section of the engine, then fuse into a glass-like coating on parts resulting in a ‘‘flame out’’ or the clogging of the fuel and cooling systems of a plane.

According to the VAAC, the ash is also potentially deadly to passengers, as it contains droplets of sulphuric acid.

– with Jane Holroyd