Volcanic Ash Disrupts Air Travel Across Southern Hemisphere

Qantas Extends Flight Cuts on Volcanic Ash
Qantas planes are shown on the tarmac at Sydney International Airport on June 12, 2011. Photographer: Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

Flights across the Southern Hemisphere were disrupted as a cloud of volcanic ash from an eruption in southern Chile widened from Argentina to Australia.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s plane was diverted from its planned landing today in Buenos Aires to the central province of Cordoba after the capital city closed its two biggest airports, canceling 144 flights by companies including Santiago-based Lan Airlines SA and Qantas Airways Ltd., Australia’s biggest carrier.

“There are ashes throughout the first 9,000 meters of the atmosphere,” said Alejandro Tome, a spokesman at the Argentine civil aviation office, adding that the flight disruptions in the region were “unprecedented.”

Cancellations worsened after initially easing on June 10, one day after airlines scrapped about 320 flights to and from the Buenos Aires airports following the June 4 eruption of the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcanic complex in Chile. New Zealand airspace may be affected for at least a week, the country’s Civil Aviation Authority said June 11.

Aerolineas Argentinas SA, the country’s biggest airline, may resume some flights tonight, depending on weather conditions, the company said in an e-mailed statement.


In Brazil, Tam SA canceled flights to and from Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Uruguay, the company said in an e-mailed statement. Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA canceled flights today to Argentina from Santiago, Florianopolis and Sao Paulo, according to Aeropuertos Argentina 2000 SA, which runs the country’s two biggest airports.

The volcanic ash consists of “pretty fine particles that can cause damage to the windscreen of the aircraft and to the fuselage,” said Bill Sommer, a spokesman for New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority. “It can also cause problems to engines and has been known to get into hydraulic systems. It’s almost like sand-blasting.”

Delta Air Lines Inc. canceled its Buenos Aires to Atlanta flight today, said Anthony Black, a spokesman for the carrier. United Continental Holdings Inc. canceled three flights yesterday because of the volcano’s activity, said Mary Clark, a spokeswoman. The airline hasn’t decided today whether to cancel additional flights, Clark said in an e-mail from Houston.

Qantas Airways Ltd., Australia’s biggest carrier, canceled more flights today.

8,000 Passengers

“A number of flights have been canceled or re-routed to avoid the volcanic ash cloud,” Qantas said in a message on its Web site. Passengers with tickets to travel to or from affected destinations can change course or get a refund credit for future travel, it said.

About 8,000 Qantas passengers had already been affected by cancellations to 59 flights late yesterday, spokeswoman Olivia Wirth said in an e-mailed statement. The airline grounded flights serving Auckland, Christchurch, Queenstown and Wellington in New Zealand, as well as Tasmania and Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city.

“Until we know exactly where the ash plume is, exactly what the density of it is, Qantas believes it’s absolutely prudent to suspend services,” Wirth told reporters.

Qantas said its Jetstar budget brand has stopped 66 flights, affecting 8,600 passengers. Virgin Blue Holdings Ltd. also planned to cancel services to New Zealand, according to Brisbane-based spokeswoman Melissa Thomson.

UN Secretary-General Ban, who met with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner today, took a 8-hour bus ride to cover the 713 kilometers (443 miles) from Cordoba to Argentina’s capital.

Engine Stall

In 1982, all four engines on a British Airways Boeing Co. 747 stalled when the plane encountered ash spewed from Mount Galunggung in Indonesia. The plane fell for almost four miles before the pilot was able to restart three engines and make an emergency landing in Jakarta.

The eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano in April 2010 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.

Air New Zealand Ltd., the country’s state-controlled carrier, has said it doesn’t expect delays or cancellations in an e-mailed statement. The airline is operating with changed flight paths and altitude levels where necessary, the statement said, citing Chief Pilot Captain David Morgan.

Lower Altitude

“The ash has traveled a great distance at high altitude and remains present at distinct altitude bands between 20,000-35,000 feet,” said Morgan, who is also Air New Zealand’s general manager of airline operations and safety. “As a result, where required aircraft will fly at a lower altitude of 18,000 feet to remain below the ash or operate a slightly different course.”

Across the lakes region of Argentine Patagonia, the ash cloud has closed all airspace. In the southern ski resort town of Bariloche, ploughs normally used to clear snow from roads were put to work removing piles of grey ash. The nearby surface of Lake Nahuel Huapi, part of the country’s oldest national park that stretches to the mountainous border with Chile, was covered in ash.

The government will declare an agriculture emergency in the Patagonia region as the ashes caused losses of animals and fruit, said Haroldo Lebed, the country’s secretary of Agriculture Emergency and Disaster, according to Perfil.com.

Chile’s Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcanic complex previously had major eruptions in 1921-22 and 1960, according to the Washington-based Smithsonian Institution. The volcano may erupt for an additional 10 days, Chilean Mining and Energy Minister Laurence Golborne said on June 8.

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