POSTED: 7:32 a.m. HST, Jun 12, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 12:40 a.m. HST, Jun 13, 2011
WELLINGTON, New Zealand >> Tens of thousands of passengers in Australia and New Zealand were stranded when airlines suspended flights Sunday as an ash cloud from an erupting volcano in southern Chile spread, threatening to damage engines.
Australia's national carrier, Qantas Airways, said all the airline's flights in and out of the southeastern city of Melbourne would be grounded. Other carriers including Virgin Australia and discount airlines Jetstar and Tiger similarly suspended flights.
Up to 30,000 passengers in New Zealand and Australia found themselves stuck, according to airlines' estimates. Sunday afternoon, frustrated travelers lined up in airports and looked for last-minute accommodation. Hotels near Melbourne's airport were fully booked.
The plume of ash could disrupt travel for the next several days, according to Airservices Australia. It said the main ash cloud had reached southern Tasmania and New Zealand's South Island but it was expected to pass to the south of the Australian mainland.
Qantas also canceled 22 flights to and from New Zealand and the Australian island-state of Tasmania, as well as eight flights within New Zealand's South Island, as the dust cloud from Chile's erupting Cordon Caulle volcano spread across the atmosphere.
Virgin Australia later announced it was suspending 34 domestic flights and one international one from Melbourne on Sunday evening.
"We have been closely monitoring the situation all day," Virgin's Sean Donohue said in a statement. "Safety is always our number one priority."
Australian budget carrier Jetstar said it canceled a total of 92 flights affecting 12,000 passengers.
National carrier Air New Zealand did not cancel or delay any flights but has adjusted flight routes and altitudes to ensure aircraft remain clear of any ash, company spokeswoman Tracy Mills said. The drifting clouds of fine grit can severely damage airplane engines.
New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority said the ash plumes could affect airplane cruising levels for both jet and turboprop aircraft at between 20,000 and 35,000 feet (6,000 and 10,600 meters).
The agency said the ash would likely disrupt flights for the next week.
The volcano in Chile began erupting on June 4. 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.
Private weather forecaster WeatherWatch.co.nz said Sunday that ash from the volcano had spiraled clockwise around Antarctica at a very high altitude.