Thousands still await flights

THOUSANDS of air passengers remain stranded in Melbourne despite the ash cloud from the Chilean volcano beginning to dissipate and airlines resuming flights out of Tullamarine and Avalon airports yesterday.

More than 66,000 domestic and international travellers have had flights disrupted by the volcano, which meteorologists warned yesterday could cause more havoc with a second ash cloud drifting across south-eastern Australia.

Qantas last night warned it would take until the end of the week for scheduling to return to normal as it dealt with 20,000 affected customers. The airline last night put on three extra flights between Sydney and Melbourne.

But flights of Qantas and subsidiary Jetstar to Tasmania and New Zealand remained suspended last night and a decision on when they will resume will be made about 10am today.

Jetstar said last night that flights to and from Adelaide had also been halted after conditions worsened. There would be an update this morning.

Virgin Australia resumed flights at 7am yesterday, while Qantas and Jetstar resumed flights from Melbourne and Avalon airports at 1pm. Services had been suspended on Sunday.

Passengers on Qantas and Jetstar flights that were scheduled to leave before 1pm are being rebooked on flights over the next few days.

After chaotic scenes on Sunday night, Melbourne Airport remained busy yesterday with many passengers still uncertain until about noon whether they would get on flights.

Avalon Airport chief executive Justin Giddings said eight of the 12 flights scheduled to leave there yesterday had been cancelled.


''The cancelled passengers may struggle to get on flights for the next couple of days,'' he said. ''It depends on what happens with the ash, but I suspect it will all be back to normal by Wednesday here.''

Other airlines including Air New Zealand did not suspend flights. Air New Zealand chief pilot David Morgan said its aircraft had avoided the ash by operating at a maximum altitude of 5500 metres or by altering flight paths. ''It would have been far easier to simply cancel flights,'' he said.

Dick Smith, a former chairman of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, said he was surprised that Australia's airlines had been so quick to ground flights. Airlines not flying had been ''ultra-conservative'', he said.

''This dust has gone two-thirds of the way around the world. Compared to a typical dust storm we have in Australia, it is nothing,'' he said.

The activity of the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano has diminished since it began erupting on June 4, but Chilean authorities have warned it could increase again.

In Darwin, the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre's supervising meteorologist, Gordon Jackson, said the ash now over Victoria and Tasmania would remain until at least today.

''It depends on how the wind is moving,'' he said.

The air force was called in yesterday to fly Tasmanian federal politicians to Canberra after they could not travel on commercial flights.

With AAP