It’s day four of the great Australian airline volcanic ash safety stakes being held at airports country wide and, they’re off.

Virgin Australia has raced to an early surprising lead over Qantas/Jetstar, confounding punters and bookies alike by leaving the field choking in the dust, oops, by declaring it WILL NOT FLY any more Perth services today.

The Virgins swooped on an early tip from the Australian Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre that some incredibly low level Chilean volcanic grit was bearing down on Perth due about 1 pm local time.

Qantas/Jetstar or (Jetstar/Qantas to cynics) didn’t recover until 105 minutes after the Virgin treachery in stealing its “safety before schedule” crown to announce its Perth ban.

It was then humiliated by radio shock jocks and news channels trumpeting “Qantas follows Virgin in grounding Perth flights.”

And so forth. What looks increasingly like a phony war over volcanic ash safety policies between Virgin Australia and Qantas/Jetstar sees both airlines refusing to fly through volcanic ash clouds, the difference being that Qantas does this by not flying at all anywhere near them, while Virgin Australia flies under or around them, when it knows precisely where they are.

Which is why Tasmania and New Zealand are cut off for a fourth day today for Jetstar and Qantas customers while Virgin continues to fly, and also why light aircraft are flying small groups of passengers from Hobart to Melbourne for $5000 one way (sick bags included) and the car ferry cinema seats between Devonport and Port Melbourne are sold out (movies included).

The speed of the ash cloud in a vigorous cold front threatening Perth airspace promises to see it disperse sooner rather than later according to the ash advisory centre.  However other concentrations of suspended grit from the Puyehue eruption in Chile continue to swirl below Australia and New Zealand, with occasional northwards outbreaks.

It could be as much as another week before the plumes have dispersed to altitudes and concentrations where they pose no risk to flights.

And the argument as to who is right or wrong will most likely persist even longer, at least until engine inspections show whether or not any significant damage to Virgin Australia, Air New Zealand or even Qantas jets has been caused by the subtle but cumulative effects of very fine ash ingestion.

Peter Fray

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