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Australian flights hit as Chile ash cloud returns

SYDNEY, Jun 20 – An ash cloud created by a volcanic eruption in Chile more than two weeks ago has prompted Australian airlines to suspend some flights after the plume looped the globe and returned Down Under.

The Puyehue volcano\’s activity has been steadily decreasing, allowing people to return to their homes in the Andes mountains, but the huge ash cloud it ejected is still floating over the southern hemisphere.

Qantas, Virgin and Tiger Airways all cancelled some flights to and from Adelaide scheduled for Tuesday after forecasters said the ash would drift over the South Australian capital at that time.

"It will obviously cause disruption, it will obviously prevent aircraft flying at the altitude of the cloud," Andrew Tupper, head of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology\’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, said of the plume.

"How they (airlines) choose to cope with that is their decision."

Tupper said the cloud was about 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) offshore on Monday but was expected to cross the southeastern coast and affect Adelaide by early the following day. It is also likely to affect Melbourne, he said.

He said while the ash had thinned during its travels around the globe it was still clearly visible on satellite images and was travelling at an altitude of 8-13 kilometres, generally cruising level for aircraft.

"Although much of the ash that came around us last week has dissipated, the leading edge of it… is coming around for another shot," he said.

He added that it was too soon to know whether it would affect the country\’s busiest airport Sydney, but admitted the cloud would be an "uncomfortably close" distance of about 100 kilometres from the hub.

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For now, Adelaide was the focus of the disruption, with Qantas cancelling services to and from the city, and to and from the South Australian town of Port Lincoln, scheduled for between 6:30am and 2:00pm on Tuesday. Some Qantas flights leaving Adelaide before 6:30am would go ahead, the airline said.

"Qantas will continue to monitor the movement of the ash cloud and assess its impact on flight operations," it said. It did not say how many flights in total would be affected.

Virgin also suspended all flights in and out of Adelaide on Tuesday, as well as the regional town of Mildura, due to the ash, and said it was watching the situation in Melbourne and Tasmania.

"Our main focus for the near future is looking at Melbourne and Tasmania," a spokesman for the airline said, adding that the chance of the ash affecting Sydney was a lot lower than for airports further south.

Tiger Airways also cancelled eight flights to and from Adelaide for Tuesday.

The ash cloud entered Australian and New Zealand airspace just over a week ago, causing some airlines to ground all flights to affected areas while others chose to divert their planes under and around the plume.

The ash disrupted the travel plans of tens of thousands of people in Australia and New Zealand, cancelling some travel across the Tasman Sea and affecting flights to Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart.

Tupper could not say how long the new ash front would last, but said it would probably linger over any one place for only a day.

Ash poses a significant threat to aircraft because once sucked into engines it can be converted into molten glass as a result of the high temperatures and potentially cause an engine to fail.

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