Australian fliers vent anger as volcano vents ash

AP News
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Posted: Jun 15, 2011 10:23 AM
Australian fliers vent anger as volcano vents ash

Stuart and Tina Gunn should be with their daughter by now. She is waiting for them in New Zealand, due to give birth to her first child at any moment.

Instead, the English couple remained stuck at a Sydney hotel for a second day Wednesday, waiting for ash spewing from a Chilean volcano to clear, and waiting to hear something _ anything _ from Qantas, the Australian carrier that was supposed to take them on the last leg of their journey.

The Gunns are among tens of thousands of passengers grounded in Australia who have become increasingly frustrated at Qantas and other airlines. Many are having a tough time understanding why some airlines are choosing to cancel flights, while others aren't.

The ash, which can damage jet engines, has crossed the Pacific from Chile, where a volcano has been erupting since June 4. More than 70,000 passengers in Australia and New Zealand have been at least temporarily stranded since the weekend.

Chilean officials said a thick column of ash continued to boil into the atmosphere more than 5 miles (8 kilometers) above the Cordon Caulle volcano on Tuesday, though weather conditions made it impossible to determine the size of the ash cloud on Wednesday.

It has been drifting east toward Argentina and Uruguay, though airports in their capitals were able to reopen on Wednesday. The closures had forced Peruvian president-elect Ollanta Humala to take a boat across the Rio de la Plata from Uruguay to Buenos Aires, where he met with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez on Tuesday.

Soccer officials, meanwhile, were worried that the ash could delay the July 1 start of the Copa America, South America's championship. "We hope that within five or six days the problems with the ash will not exist," Argentine Football Association President Julio Grondona told Argentine broadcaster Radio 10.

In Sydney, the Gunns have booked tickets on another airline and will use them if Qantas doesn't fly them out Thursday. They said they have spent four hours over two days on hold with Qantas, but have yet to get through.

"You listen to that message until you lose the will to live," said Tina Gunn. She said her daughter, Jacqueline Burt, is due to give birth Friday but has already been feeling pains and is getting "very stressed."

Wednesday brought mixed news: Qantas and its Jetstar subsidiary announced they were resuming flights to Tasmania on Thursday after four days of cancellations, but it and several other airlines said they were canceling flights to and from the gateway western Australian city of Perth.

Air travel out of the southern cities of Melbourne and Adelaide has been restored, but Qantas service between Australia and New Zealand remains suspended, as it has been since the weekend.

Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand have avoided canceling many flights by changing flight paths, a step Qantas and some other airlines have been unwilling to take.

Qantas spokesman Tom Woodward said he couldn't comment on other airlines' safety procedures, but that when it comes to thick ash clouds, Qantas would not fly through them, under them or around them.

He said Qantas was doing everything possible by providing hotel rooms for stranded passengers and allowing them to rebook or collect refunds for their tickets. Qantas was also trying to reach out to passengers with text messages and by posting regular updates on its website, Woodward said.

"There's no denying the fact that this is a major disruption and it's put a lot of pressure on our call centers," Woodward said. He said two- or three-hour waits on the phone are "the reality of our situation, unfortunately."

Australia's Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre has warned that flights could be affected for several days. Even when all routes are finally cleared for flights, extra days would be needed to relieve the backlog.

Justin and Yoko Smith and their 19-month-old son, Subaru, were facing a fifth day stuck at the Mercure hotel near the Sydney airport. Justin Smith, a mechanic, said the family had booked a flight home to New Zealand on Jetstar. He said he has no money to rebook on another airline, so he will sit it out until Jetstar gets him home.

"My boss has gone nuts," he said. "I was supposed to be back on Monday."

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Calatrava reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Associated Press writers Debora Rey in Buenos Aires, Federico Quilodran in Santiago, Chile, and Sarah DiLorenzo in Sydney contributed to this report.