Some Aussie flights resume but ash cloud not clear

June 13, 2011 - 7:56 AM
New Zealand Volcanic Ash

Stranded travelers stand in a queue at the Qantas counter at Auckland International Airport in Auckland, New Zealand, Monday, June 13, 2011, after flights were canceled due to ash from a Chilean volcanic eruption. (AP Photo/New Zealand Herald, Greg Bowker) NEW ZEALAND OUT, AUSTRALIA OUT

SYDNEY (AP) — Airlines started flying a backlog of thousands of stranded passengers to and from Australia's second-largest city Monday as ash from a Chilean volcano began to clear after forcing hundreds of cancelations.

Most flights between Australia and New Zealand, however, remained grounded due to the drifting cloud of fine grit, which can damage airplane engines. And Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said the ash cloud was large enough to continue disrupting flights.

Several flights to and from the southeastern city of Melbourne, the island state of Tasmania and New Zealand were canceled Sunday after the ash moved across the Pacific from Chile, where it has been spewing from the Cordon Caulle volcano since June 4.

In total, more than 60,000 passengers have been stranded by the disruptions, which came amid a three-day holiday weekend in Australia.

The cloud moved away from Melbourne on Monday afternoon, though, and national carrier Qantas and its budget subsidiary Jetstar resumed flights into and out of the city. Melbourne-based Tiger Airways became the last airline to resume Melbourne operations Monday evening, company spokeswoman Vanessa Regan said.

Qantas estimated it could take 24 to 48 hours to clear just the Melbourne backlog.

Both Qantas and Jetstar continued to ground flights from the Australian mainland to Tasmania and New Zealand, citing the danger ash poses to engines.

The Australian air force ignored the danger to fly stranded Tasmanian lawmakers to the national capital Canberra in a jet late Monday to attend parliamentary sittings, the government said in a statement. The government holds a single seat majority in the House of Representatives so any absences could bring it down.

Virgin Australia canceled flights Sunday but started flying out of Melbourne, Tasmania and New Zealand again early Monday morning with a reduced schedule, flying below the cloud.

National carrier Air New Zealand never suspended service, instead choosing to divert flights and alter altitudes.

Qantas rejected flying below the cloud.

"This is about Qantas safety standards and procedures in place. We want to assure the safety of crew, the safety of our passengers and ultimately the safety of our airlines," said Olivia Wirth, a Qantas spokeswoman. "So until such time that we get greater clarity on the ash cloud and until it removes, we will not operate services."

New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority had some good news for airlines flying below the cloud. It said it was now safe for planes to fly up to 27,000 feet (8,000 meters), up from 20,000 feet (6,000 meters).

Australia's Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre said flights could be affected for several days, mostly in southeast Australia, which includes Tasmania and Melbourne.

"We were worried about it potentially pushing up to Canberra and Sydney, but that's less of a concern for us now," Andrew Tupper, head of the center, told Australia Broadcasting Corporation.

Flights in the South American countries of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil were grounded for some days following the eruption.

The flight warnings and disruptions come 14 months after air traffic was grounded across Europe after the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

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Associated Press writers Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.