Flight

Flight Delays/Cancellations in Australia (REUTERS/TIM WIMBORNE)

The volcanic ash cloud from Chile's Puyehue volcano left thousands of travelers stranded and hundreds of flights backlogged over the past two days in Australia and New Zealand.  Strong winds have carried the ash more than halfway across the world since the volcano's big eruption over a week ago.

Last week, airports across South America from Uruguay to Brazil and all across Argentina shut due to the Chilean volcano's ash cloud.  Thousands were evacuated near the volcano in Chile, and in neighboring Argentina, the cindery cloud closed roads and blanketed grazing pastures and a ski resort.

While some flights are now resuming out of hardest hit Melbourne, most flights between the Australian mainland and Tasmania as well as across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand remain grounded due to the drifting ash cloud.  In total, more than 60,000 passengers have been stranded by the disruptions, which came amid a three-day holiday weekend in Australia.

The cloud moved away from Melbourne on Monday afternoon and national carrier Qantas and its budget subsidiary Jetstar resumed flights into and out of the city, while Melbourne-based Tiger Airways became the last airline to resume Melbourne operations Monday evening.

New Zealand's national carrier, Air New Zealand, never suspended service, instead choosing to divert flights and alter altitudes.  Virgin also chose to fly under the ash cloud.  Qantas rejected this idea.

This is about Qantas safety standards and procedures in place. We want to assure the safety of crew, the safety of our passengers and ultimately the safety of our airlines, said Olivia Wirth, a Qantas spokeswoman. So until such time that we get greater clarity on the ash cloud and until it removes, we will not operate services.

The ash cloud is sitting at about 8000 meters, which is at, or close to, the cruising altitude for most passenger jet aircraft.

The Australian air force ignored the dangers and flew stranded Tasmanian lawmakers to the capital Canberra in a jet late Monday in order to attend parliamentary sittings, the government said in a statement. The government holds a single seat majority in the House of Representatives so any absences could bring it down.

Australia's Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre said flights could be affected for several days, mostly in southeast Australia, which includes Tasmania and Melbourne.

''I think it's fair to say there will be more disruptions, so that's the bit of bad news.  The weather patterns are breaking the ash up, but as it breaks up it's like chasing leaves around the yard,'' Dr Andrew Tupper said.

''We don't know exactly where it will go next.''

The centre is tracking a 1500-kilometre cloud stretching from Tasmania to the southern coast of South Australia; it was expected to reach Adelaide overnight.

Dr Tupper also remarked that, while the ash cloud is on its way back to South America, it will likely return to Australia on its second circuit of the globe.

It has been known to do a double lap in the past.