New ash cloud prompts Qantas to extend flight ban

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    Australia’s Qantas Airways extended its ban on flights to and from Europe for another 24 hours on Tuesday, as hopes of a quick resolution to the volcanic ash crisis dwindled.

    The airline cancelled Wednesday’s services and said at least two flights would be grounded on Thursday, citing uncertainty over the situation after Britain warned of a new ash cloud headed from Iceland. The announcement comes despite some European governments re-opening airspace and confidence from the continent’s air traffic control officials that flights would normalise by Thursday.

    Qantas spokesman David Epstein said “things were looking fairly optimistic” during exchanges with London’s Heathrow Airport overnight. “The intention was that they would move to a position where Heathrow would be operating normally over a period of time,” he said. “However, since then of course we’ve had additional volcanic activity in Iceland and it would appear there are further issues to consider,” he said.

    The Australian flag-carrier is losing about 1.5 million Australian dollars (1.4 million US) a day in cancellations, hotel bills for stranded passengers and aircraft parking costs. It has about 10,000 passengers stranded in various locations, including a large number waiting in Singapore. Qantas has cancelled flights in and out of Europe since Friday.

    Travel agency Flight Centre said the impact of the disruptions would be felt for months, and would ensure that fares were driven up as fewer discounted fares would be available as airlines cleared passenger backlogs. “Naturally, this means we will have less availability over the next few months, which typically forces prices up for customers who have not yet booked seats,” chief financial officer Andrew Flannery said.

    The nation’s largest travel insurance provider, Cover-More Travel Insurance Australia, said claims related to the disruptions caused by the volcanic eruptions could top eight million Australian dollars (7.35 million US). “With the magnitude of the disruption of flights we expect claims to exceed eight million dollars, and this number will continue to grow as the period of disruption extends,” chief executive David Ferguson said in a statement Monday.

    Sydney, April 20, 2010 (AFP)