Ash forces flights to west Australia city canceled

By the Associated Press | June 14, 2011 | 9:59 PM EDT

New Zealand's Mount Taranaki has a warm glow lighting the snow peak as an ash cloud from a Chilean volcano drifts across the Pacific, Sunday, June 12, 2011. Most airlines grounded more flights to and from southern Australia and New Zealand on Monday morning after an ash cloud from the Cordon Caulle volcano in southern Chile expanded overnight. (AP Photo/David Frampton) NEW ZEALAND OUT, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

SYDNEY (AP) — Virgin Australia and Qantas said they will ground flights to the western city of Perth on Wednesday afternoon because of a volcanic ash cloud — an announcement that came just as mainland air travel was getting back to normal following four days of disruptions.

The ash from a Chilean volcano has forced national carrier Qantas and budget airlines Jetstar and Tiger to cancel flights to and from the island state of Tasmania and New Zealand since Sunday. Flights to the southern cities of Melbourne and Adelaide also were canceled, but air travel to and from both cities was back to normal Wednesday.

Virgin and Air New Zealand have continued service from mainland Australia to New Zealand and Tasmania by changing flight paths to avoid the ash cloud — a move Qantas said it would not take.

In Perth, Virgin said Wednesday, the ash will be too low to avoid.

"The ash plume is forecast to be at a lower band level of approximately 15,000 feet and with this in mind, Virgin Australia will suspend all services into and out of Perth as a precautionary measure," Group Executive Sean Donohue said in a statement.

Qantas followed suit and said flights to Perth would be canceled starting in the afternoon. Jetstar and Tiger said they were still monitoring the cloud and had not yet made a decision on whether to suspend service to Perth, which is the gateway to Australia's remote west.

The groundings have affected more than 70,000 passengers so far.

Ash has moved across the Pacific from Chile, where a volcano has been erupting since June 4. Particles in the ash can damage jet engines, and flights in Chile and other South American countries have been grounded as well.