FOUR escaped pythons have caused a Qantas plane to be grounded in Melbourne after airline staff failed to find them.
The young Stimson's pythons, four of 12 in a container in the Boeing 737-800's cargo hold, apparently escaped on Tuesday during a 2½-hour flight from Alice Springs to Melbourne.
With Qantas staff unable to find the escapees among the luggage in the hold, the aircraft was removed from service and a 4pm Melbourne-to-Sydney flight was cancelled.
Qantas spokesman Joe Aston said the 12 juvenile pythons measured about 15 centimetres and were travelling in "an appropriate" container. He said it was not clear how the four had escaped.
"While (the container) was intact on departure (from Alice Springs), it was discovered on arrival that four of those animals had broken free," he said yesterday.
Passengers waiting to catch flight 446 to Sydney were put on a later flight and asked to provide an address to Qantas staff so their luggage, delayed during the search for the reptiles, could be forwarded to them.
Native to the arid and rocky parts of western and central Australia, the Stimson's python eats its prey whole — and this includes small mammals, birds, frogs and other reptiles.
The snake, which grows to between 50 centimetres and one metre, is not venomous.
Mr Aston said that after establishing that the species was not threatened or endangered, the aircraft was fumigated to kill the four pythons.
Stimson's pythons can climb when hunting and are often found high up on ledges of caves where they prey on small bats. They are common as pets and can live for more than 20 years.
Mr Aston said all passengers received their delayed luggage and the aircraft concerned was back in service.