Chile volcano ash cloud moves higher

Last updated 14:34 13/06/2011

Stranded at Wellington Airport

Australia, NZ cancel flights for ash

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The Chilean volcano ash cloud over New Zealand has moved higher up, says Air New Zealand, making it safer for flying to continue.

Frustrated passengers have been growing angry at inconsistent treatment and a lack of communication from airlines, as more flights were cancelled today due to the ash hanging over the Tasman, caused by eruptions at Chile's Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano.

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Jetstar and Pacific Blue have cancelled domestic and international flights across New Zealand and Australia today, leaving thousands stranded.

Qantas also cancelled flights, but announced services to and from Melbourne were to recommence from 1pm.

Air New Zealand is flying, but adjusting routes and altitudes to avoid the ash.

The airline's chief pilot, David Morgan, said advice from the MetService was that the ash cloud was now much higher and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was comfortable for domestic and trans-Tasman services to continue to operate.

In order to avoid the ash, domestic services had been operating up to a maximum 5500 metres, while trans-Tasman flights departing Christchurch and Wellington were given new flight paths heading much further north than normal before crossing the Tasman, Morgan said.

"The extra distance involved required the use of 10 per cent more fuel, but has meant customers were able to safely get to where they needed to go."

"We will not fly through ash and are constantly taking guidance from CAA and the MetService to ensure we can continue to carry passengers only where safe routes and altitudes are available."

Two large earthquakes in Christchurch today have not affected flights, with the national air traffic control centre in the city continuing to operate, Airways Corporation communications manager Nikki Hawkey said.

"Operational staff stayed on but everybody else has gone, we just can't have people here that aren't essential."

Air New Zealand said it flew 473 flights and carried more than 26,500 passengers around New Zealand and across the Tasman yesterday.

The ash cloud had earlier been sitting between 6096m and 10,668m - in airspace used by commercial airlines.

New Zealanders have been complaining of inconsistent treatment among passengers, after some travellers were provided free hotels while others were left to fend for themselves.

Christchurch mother Anna Tweedy said she was stuck in Wellington when her flight was delayed yesterday, after travelling north with her daughter for a gymnastics competition.

"I'm frustrated as all hell - friends of ours were put up in the Duxton in Wellington but we weren't offered any accommodation," Tweedy said.

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"I've just spent more than one hour on hold to Jetstar but they won't refund my ticket until the flight is cancelled."

Passengers in Brisbane flying with Pacific Blue said they were left frustrated after being told there was no accommodation in either Brisbane or the Gold Coast.

Passenger Elizabeth Yan said there was actually plenty of accommodation - and did not understand why the airline had issued the announcement.

"Novotel (by the airport) had 150 rooms available before Qantas filled up 50 and the rest of us who had the knowledge, money and initiative are filling up the rest," she said.

"We are highly disgusted with Pacific Blue's lack of reassurance ... as lost passengers, we were left to fend for ourselves."

X Ray Catz band member Richard Te One, also stuck in Brisbane, said Pacific Blue passengers had now been told to go back to the airport and wait for news.

Te One was one of many who displayed frustration at the airline's phone systems.

"The phones were working at 6am but there's no way you'd get through now," he said.

Jetstar passenger Mike Eve, who was stuck in Christchurch, said while he could understand why the airline was not flying, their communication was appalling.

Eve had been unable to check whether his flight was leaving and only found on arrival at the airport that it had been cancelled that morning.

"I have never experienced such bad customer service in my life," Eve said.

Some passengers, unable to wait, had rebooked with Air New Zealand - the only airline that decided to change its flight paths to avoid the ash.

Hamish Paterson and his four friends spent an extra $3000 rebooking with Air New Zealand after Pacific Blue cancelled their 7am flight to Brisbane.

Paterson said he waited over an hour for assistance despite airline staff saying they would be back in 20 minutes.

"When I approached them I asked why didn't you just write at what time you were going to be back. The lady said 'we needed a break'. It's overall slack, useless," he said.

Via media releases, the airlines said they were trying hard to cope with the delays.

Jetstar spokesman Simon Westaway said the airline was doing its best to get people rooms but were coping with an "unprecedented" situation.

"Let's be frank. There were 12,000 customers affected yesterday," he said.

"If people have outstanding issues we will settle that."

Jetstar would provide accommodation or a $150 voucher, and were prepared to refund people who had paid for a hotel, he said.

Customers on Jetstar and Qantas had been able to defer travel, get a refund or change their destination.

Jetstar and Qantas had said they decided not to fly to ensure passenger and crew safety.

Air New Zealand Chief pilot David Morgan told Radio New Zealand they were flying while others were not because "it is safe to do so."

He said they were flying below the 6096m ceiling created by the fine ash.

The volcano in Chile has been disrupting travel in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, since it began erupting on June 4.

VAAC Tracking maps showed the cloud was over the South Island and the lower part of the North Island yesterday.

It was due to move north-east to cover the country by 6am today.

It was expected to remain over New Zealand for the next few days, but the volcano was still erupting, so the problem may continue.

The small ash particles could damage aircraft windscreens, fuselage and engines.

Pacific Blue information:

Qantas information:

Jetstar information:

Air New Zealand information:

- KIRSTY JOHNSTON/Stuff, with The Dominion Post


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