Ash cloud chaos continues in NZ with no let-up in sight

08:17, June 17, 2011      

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Crowds of passengers were still waiting at airports around New Zealand late Thursday after the ash cloud from Peruvian volcano Puyehue-Cordon Caulle grounded more flights within the country and to Australia.

Air New Zealand, which had been boasting of its ability to keep flying while other carriers remained cautiously grounded, was forced to suspend flights to and from South Island airports late Wednesday as the ash cloud came lower.

The New Zealand Metservice (meteorological service) had advised that low areas of ash down to just over 3,000 meters covered parts of the east coast of the South Island affecting flights into and out of Invercargill, Dunedin and Christchurch only.

However, the airline resumed operations from the three cities Thursday afternoon following a new forecast, although flights to and from the popular ski resort of Queenstown were still affected.

General manager airline operations and safety and chief pilot Captain David Morgan said Air New Zealand was continuing to work closely with both the Civil Aviation Authority and the Airways Corporation to identify safe flight paths that avoided areas of ash.

The airline warned of delays as it restarted operations in these areas.

Qantas and its budget subsidiary, Jetstar, cancelled all domestic and international flights in and out of New Zealand Thursday, grounding 15 trans-Tasman and 31 domestic flights.

Pacific Blue suspended services into and out of Auckland and Hamilton Thursday, in addition to six flights cancelled from Australia to Christchurch and Wellington.

Pacific Blue group executive operations Sean Donohue said the ash plume had moved north, necessitating the schedule changes.


The continued disruption saw a 67-year-old World War II vintage Southern DC3 aircraft brought back into service to fly passengers out of Christchurch to the capital, Wellington.

The DC3 ZK-AMY, owned by the Southern DC3 Trust in the South Island town of Ashburton, was built in 1944 and once flew with the U.S. Army Air Force in the Pacific.

With a capacity of 28 passengers, the twin-prop aircraft was considered safe to fly because its cruising altitude was only 3, 500 feet (1,067 meters), well below the ash cloud.


Bill Sommer, from New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority, said on TVNZ Thursday that the ash plume extended over most of the country except the far north, and was expected to sit there for " the next 24 hours at least."

The last major eruption from the volcano in 1960 lasted about two months and the eruptions were very difficult to predict, said experts.

The explosive eruption cloud started out reaching up to 15 km in height and it had recently reached as high as nine or 10 km, enabling it to enter the inter-continental jetstream more easily.

Discussing the prospect of continued disruption, Graham Leonard, a volcanologist with the government-run GNS research institute, told TV3 Thursday, "We're talking maybe months, but we're not guaranteeing months."

The eruption of Puyehue-Cordon Caulle, which began on June 4, is reportedly decreasing in intensity, but meteorologists reckon the ash cloud could take up to six days to disperse once it stops.

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