Volcanic ash strands Tasmanian passengers

HUNDREDS of airline passengers were stranded yesterday with both Qantas and Jetstar cancelling flights in and out of the state due to volcanic ash from Chile.

The two airlines cancelled 32 flights to and from Tasmania for safety reasons. Virgin Australia later joined the action by suspending all domestic and international flights at 7pm.

Virgin Blue corporate communications manager Melissa Thomson said the company cancelled two return flights from Melbourne to Hobart, one return flight to Launceston and one single flight to Launceston.

The volcano Puyehue-Cordon Caulle in southern Chile began erupting on June 4, with eruptions reaching 50,000ft and still continuing yesterday to 30,000ft.

Tasmanian regional forecasting centre senior meteorologist Ray Evans said the ash cloud had moved from West to East with the jet stream at about 120km/h from South America across the globe to Australia and New Zealand.

He said the diffuse edge of the main ash cloud was over Tasmania and it was expected to affect the state until at least today and would reach Victoria, Southern NSW and the ACT.

Jetstar head of corporate relations Simon Westaway said it was company policy not to fly through or underneath volcanic ash plumes.

He said the company was providing customers with refunds and travel vouchers.

Qantas spokeswoman Emma Kearns said that about 1500 passengers in Australia and New Zealand had been affected.

"At this stage flights for Tasmania will be closely monitored and we are reviewing the situation," she said.

Meteorologist Ray Evans said the ash cloud contained fine particles and sulphur dioxide.

"Volcanic ash is extremely dangerous to aircraft. It can induce engine failure or engine damage - that's why we are taking particular notice of this eruption and this ash cloud working its way around the world."

He said the sharp particles in the atmosphere could abrade aircraft surfaces, fog windscreens and lights and get into electrical systems.

The Spirit of Tasmania ferries were no help to stranded passengers yesterday, with no trips scheduled on Sundays.

However, late yesterday TT-Line made an extra 110 seats available for crossings tonight and tomorrow night to assist stranded passengers in Tasmania and Victoria. TT-Line chief financial officer Scott Hadley said the seats had been made available in the ferries' cinemas.

Telephone bookings for those seats can be made from 8am today on 132 010.

Jetstar cancelled 10 trans-Tasman services affecting flights between Sydney, Christchurch, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

The airline also cancelled 20 domestic New Zealand services.

Further cancellations could not be ruled out for today.

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