Australian airlines disagree over volcanic ash plume safety risk

17:38, June 14, 2011      

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By Vienna Ma

Australian airlines on Tuesday continued to disagree over the safety risk posed by the ash plume from a Chilean volcano, which has drifted to south of Australia.

Australian airline passengers face a third day of delays, with Qantas on Tuesday canceled its flights in and out of New Zealand, Tasmania and South Australia, saying that it is not safe to fly.

However Virgin, which is still flying in and out of Adelaide of South Australia as normal, said it can safely fly its planes under and around any danger.

According to Qantas chief pilot Peter Wilson, it is not safe to fly because the ash cloud is too unstable.

"Unlike Europe, where the Europeans have the ability to measure the ash concentration and the density of the ash, we don't have that ability down in Australia," he told ABC News on Tuesday.

"All the information we have is based on modeling, so we don't know what the density or the concentration of the ash cloud is."

Qantas spokeswoman Olivia Wirth said the matter is not as simple as flying below or around the ash cloud, adding that an ash plume can be impacted and can change at any moment due to changing weather, changing wind streams.

Qantas has canceled more than 360 flights in the past two days, affecting 26,000 passengers.

On the other hand, Virgin spokesman Colin Lippiatt said the airline internally has their own volcanic ash management team, which has been working extremely close with the Bureau of Meteorology and also the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center.

"What we're doing in the few cases where there is any potential impact on flight routes as a result of ash, is operating amended flight paths on those affected routes to ensure there is absolutely no risk," Lippiatt said.

"We know exactly where the ash is, how high the extent of its limits, and what we're doing is redirecting the flight routes on those few impacted routes by going either around or under is the simplest way to put it."

According to Peter Marosszeky, a senior lecturer in the School of Aviation at the University of New South Wales, if a plane flew through a low-density ash cloud, there would not be an immediate effect except perhaps some visible signs of erosion.

However, he said in the long-term, the engines would have to be changed because the accumulation of this ash on the rotating members will cause it to lose its performance characteristics and the engine would have to be pulled off the airplane.

"The expense, not to mention safety, but the expense of taking that risk is fairly high," he was quoted by ABC News.

The Volcanic Ash Advisory Center in Australia said the main plume, which is 600 kilometers wide, is likely to remain hanging over Adelaide of South Australia for at least another day and could be thicker over Perth of Western Australia in the next 24 hours.

The eruption, which happened more than a week ago, is also causing travel chaos in parts of Argentina and Uruguay, and has also affected flights in the south of Brazil.

Source: Xinhua
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