Volcanic ash throws travel plans into disarray

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Thousands of New Zealanders' travel plans could be affected if the volcanic ash continues to lie over Europe.

House of Travel spokesman Brent Thomas said right now the delays have interfered with hundreds of customers but if it lasts a week, that number could easily be in the thousands.

"A 747 can only hold so many people... It's not like they're going to create another plane," Mr Thomas said.

He said no one knows how far the volcanic ash is going to spread.

View the UK Met Office's volcanic ash tracker

Meanwhile, beds have been carted into Amsterdam airport as hundreds of thousands of passengers across Europe are left stranded by volcanic ash from Iceland sweeping through.

Meanwhile, a large gathering of Kiwis in Cannes, in the south of France, have hit the bar after learning that their flights out of Nice were cancelled.

Air traffic has been paralysed by a massive no fly zone imposed amid fears the ash could be sucked into aircraft engines, causing them to fail.

The Eyjafjallajokull volcano began erupting on Wednesday, hurling a plume of ash six to 11 kilometres into the atmosphere, which spread southeast overnight.

Air New Zealand is advising people with flights to Europe to defer their travel plans, while many of its London-bound passengers have been stranded in Frankfurt, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Its flights out of Britain have been cancelled. In total, about 1500 of is passengers have been affected already, with the possibility the disruptions may continue into the weekend.

From Cannes, New Zealander Brian Holland told nzherald.co.nz at 2am local time that a large gathering of Kiwis had gathered at a bar after a television festival's final day.

They had had an organised Kiwi dinner, then, instead of departing for the airport, they simply shifted to champagne.

"Everything has been shut down ... there are thousands of people who haven't been able to leave. Some are panicking. The rest of us are just at a bar," Mr Holland said.

He was meant to fly to London with British Airways, then on to the United States, but had his Wellington travel agent fly him out on Monday straight to New York with Air France. He would spend the weekend at a rented apartment, he said.

British Airways had offered no accommodation or compensation, citing the volcanic ash was "an act of God", Mr Holland said.

Although the New Zealanders left in the French Riviera were busy merry-making, one colleague had left early for London so she could be back in New Zealand in time for her child's birthday party.

She was stuck in a hotel in Wembley and in a long queue for the next flight out, which could be days yet, he said.

Several people were still on the phone trying to work their schedules out, but on the whole, with a sponsor picking up the bar tab, the group of Kiwis were making the best of the situation, Mr Holland said.

New Zealand rugby league player Robbie Paul - now playing for Leigh Centurions in Britain - says the eruption is a "pain in the butt."

His Challenge Cup championship side had been scheduled to take a simple 90-minute flight to the south of France ahead of tomorrow's clash tie at Limoux.

But all those plans were thrown into disarray when Britain's airspace was closed because of ash from the volcano in Iceland.

Now the team members are on a 24-hour, 974-mile coach trip from hell to reach the match.

"A 24-hour journey?," was Paul's response. "I can fly back to New Zealand in that time!"

"We were meant to have a chilled evening, then train," he told the Sun newspaper in London. "It's a real pain in the butt."

Airports in Britain, Ireland and Nordic countries have also been closed as the volcano continues to spew ash.

Airports could remain closed into the weekend and intermittent disruptions continue for weeks or months depending on where the weather carries the ash.

It was the first time "within living memory" a natural disaster had caused Britain to close its air space, a spokeswoman for the National Air Traffic Service said.

Air New Zealand international group general manager Ed Sims said travellers faced "a very uncertain situation".

"We're strongly advising passengers whose end point is the UK or the northern hemisphere that they're better off actually not departing, deferring their travel plans in conjunction with their travel agent through our sales staff," he told Radio New Zealand.

Air New Zealand cancelled flights NZ1 London to Auckland via Los Angeles and NZ38 London to Auckland via Hong Kong.

NZ39 from Hong Kong to London has been diverted to Frankfurt, Germany, with passengers accommodated in hotels.

NZ2 from Los Angeles to London remained in Los Angeles last night NZT and was likely to return to Auckland today.

Two London bound services from Auckland last evening will be suspended at their transit stops of Los Angeles and Hong Kong pending further updates. Passengers are being accommodated in hotels.

Air New Zealand was expecting to be updated on the situation about 6pm NZT.

"I would anticipate there would be significant delays from that point on because there's such a vast backlog of flights," Mr Sims said.

Air New Zealand said passengers should monitor the situation on the airline's website, call 0800 737 000, or check with their travel agent.

In Christchurch, a London-bound Singapore Airlines plane left this morning for Singapore. An Emirates flight to London via Sydney, Bangkok and Dubai remains on schedule to leave at 3.55pm.

Flights scheduled to land in Britain continued to leave Auckland International Airport last night and this morning.

An airport spokesman said airlines were trying to get their planes as close to their destinations as possible before grounding them.

A 9am Korean Air flight would at least get to its stopover point, Seoul, the spokesman said.

The disruption from the ash cloud could last at least two days and affect up to a million people, with long-haul flights to places like New Zealand likely to cause the biggest headaches for airlines.

A leading volcano expert said if the eruption continued, the ash could present intermittent problems to air traffic for six months.

In 1982, a British Airways jumbo jet lost power in all its engines when it flew into an ash cloud over Indonesia, gliding towards the ground before it was able to restart its engines.

The incident prompted the aviation industry to rethink the way it prepared for ash clouds, resulting in international contingency plans which were activated yesterday.

"A ballpark estimate would be that half a million to a million people's travel will be disrupted in the U.K. over a couple of days, assuming things start to clear up soon," Peter Morris, chief economist at Ascend, an aviation consultancy in London, told the New York Times.

"For the long-haul players, especially those headed to the other side of the world, it's a nightmare."


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