Qantas cancels all flights from Melbourne as ash-cloud disruptions loom until Friday

Travel chaos as ash cloud returns

Several flights cancelled leaving thousands stranded around the nation as the Chilean ash cloud returns to Australia.

UPDATE: A larger ash cloud from the Chilean volcano could disrupt travel at Australia’s major airports for two days, affecting hundreds of thousands of passengers, however many will have to wait until later tonight to see if they can still get on a plane tomorrow.

All major airlines cancelled flights en masse today as the ash cloud made its second pass into Australian airspace. The disruptions are costing the domestic tourism sector about $10 million a day, one industry group has estimated.

Qantas halted more than 200 flights today and announced all Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra flights tomorrow would also be grounded.

Jetstar cancelled 71 domestic and international flights today and is due to provide an update on tomorrow’s flights at 7pm.

Our estimate for the wider tourism industry along the east coast and bottom part of Australia, the daily impact will be over $10 million.

Virgin Australia, which kept flying for much of last week while other airlines stopped services, joined Qantas in cancelling its Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra services.

Virgin will suspend services tomorrow into and out of Melbourne until 1.00pm and into and out of Sydney and Canberra until 4.00pm. Other services from Adelaide, Mildura, Hobart and Launceston remain suspended.

Tiger Airways cancelled all 60 domestic flights today, affecting 9000 passengers, with some planning to camp out at Melbourne airport overnight.The budget airline also cancelled tomorrow's morning flights.

Aviation Minister Anthony Albanese said airports in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Adelaide could be shut for up to 48 hours while the ash cloud passed.

Qantas spokeswoman Olivia Wirth said cancellations would have a knock-on effect, with Sydney and Melbourne being major hubs.

‘‘Unfortunately it doesn’t look like being the end,’’ she told reporters in Canberra.

‘‘We do expect upcoming delays over the next 24 to 48 hours.’’

Virgin Australia, which kept flying for much of last week while other airlines stopped services, cancelled all flights to and from Sydney and Melbourne from 4pm today.

It cited the ash plume's expected base level of 20,000 feet for preventing the operation of regular scheduled services.

‘‘It’s sitting quite low and we’re not comfortable flying at those levels,’’ Virgin spokeswoman Danielle Keighery told reporters in Sydney.

‘‘At the moment it does look that it will affect services tomorrow.’’

Head of the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, Andrew Tupper said it was hoped that the latest ash cloud problems that began with Adelaide services being cancelled this morning would only last for 48 hours in total.

He said the cloud was clearing South Australia and would reach Melbourne and Hobart on tonight night.

‘‘It will be clearing from the mainland during the day tomorrow and it should be clear of Tasmania tomorrow night.

‘‘So we’re still looking at a short, sharp event.’’

But Tourism and Transport Forum chief executive John Lee said the return of the ash cloud was costing operators a fortune.

‘‘Our estimate for the wider tourism industry along the east coast and bottom part of Australia, the daily impact will be over $10 million,’’ Mr Lee said.

'‘This has been a very, very tough year for the tourism industry. This is nearly the straw that will break the camel’s back for this industry.’’

Mr Lee said service cancellations would not only affect domestic markets but also major international markets in China, the USA and the UK.

‘‘For the wider tourism industry, we understand (there will be) over $10 million in costs for losses each day this continues,’’ he told reporters at Sydney Airport.‘‘These costs will increase.’’

The ash cloud from Chile’s Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano caused six days of disruptions last week as the plume made its way over Australian and New Zealand airspace.

Dr Tupper said the ash cloud had clearly dissipated since its first pass over Australia last week and that it was unlikely to return a third time.

‘‘My view is that we would be unlucky to have it come over us again, but I think we need to be a little bit cautious and stay vigilant for it just in case.’’

At this stage Perth, Brisbane and Darwin were not affected although some of Qantas’ flights between Melbourne and Perth have been impacted.

Volcanic ash poses danger to aircraft in several ways, including the risk of engine failure.

Volcanic ash is made up of fine pulverised rock and a number of gases which are then converted into droplets of sulphuric acid and other substances, according to the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre.

The most critical effect is caused by ash melting in the hot section of aircraft engines. This can lead to the coating of components further back in the engine, which can cause loss of thrust and engine failure.

Ash can also cause an abrasion of engine parts, the airframe and parts protruding from the aircraft, and possible clogging of fuel and cooling systems.

In June 1982, a British Airways 747 suffered severe damage and had all four engines fail upon encountering ash from Mt Galunggung in Indonesia.

The aircraft made an emergency landing in Jakarta. Three weeks later the same thing happened to a Singapore Airlines 747, which lost two engines and also made an emergency landing.

‘‘Since those incidents, a major international effort has been underway to track and warn aircraft of volcanic ash cloud,’’ the advisory centre says.

‘‘Quite apart from the safety consideration, volcanic ash has caused very expensive damage to aircraft; most estimates cite costs to aviation of over $250 million since 1982. International airlines are willing to undergo extensive and very expensive re-routing if there is any possibility of ash contact on their regular routes.’’

- with AAP