Australian fliers vent anger as volcano vents ash

AP News
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Posted: Jun 15, 2011 7:44 PM
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, 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.

Thursday began to bring some relief _ but not for the Gunns. Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin said all of their domestic Australian routes were up and running, though Qantas had to cancel a handful of flights because the disruption had left them without planes where they needed them. That meant the first flights to Tasmania since the weekend, and resumed service to the western city of Perth after a day's cancellation.

But New Zealand was still largely cut off, and its isolation appeared to be getting worse: Virgin and Air New Zealand had maintained service to the country by flying around the cloud, but a budget Virgin carrier canceled its Thursday flights and Air New Zealand began to cancel some internal flights.

Chilean officials said a thick column of ash continued to boil into the atmosphere more than five miles (eight 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 _ that is, if that airline, Virgin subsidiary Pacific Blue, is able to fly. 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."

Some passengers have wondered how Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand initially managed to avoid canceling many flights, while Qantas and some other airlines refused to take that measure.

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."

Matt Wardell of Airservices Australia said Thursday that while the ash cloud may return, Australian skies should be clear for at least a couple of days. But even with routes clearing, it will likely take days 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.