Be Prepared: Plume of volcanic ash may still disrupt air travel

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A new element of adventure – if we can call it that – seems to have been added to airline travel in Europe by the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

Hopefully it won’t have quite such disastrous consequences as last month, when thousands of passengers were stranded by the closure of so much airspace for days.
But a plume of ash seems to be wandering about, rather farther south than the first one, as the winds carry it in different directions, and it disrupted travel to Ireland and to some parts of Portugal, Spain and Italy that were not affected in April.

It can be hoped it will not return to France, Germany and the UK next month when the World Cup is on – or, if it does, not until the eagerly awaited World Cup fans are here. But for the next few months, at least, it might be sensible if you go anywhere in the northern hemisphere to have spare cash or credit, and be prepared for a little delay prolonging your holiday or the challenge of finding another way home that is not blocked by an ash cloud.

Qatar Airways, which flies daily to Johannesburg and four times a week to Cape Town, Is launching its first services to South America next month, with daily flights from its home airport in Doha to the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo, continuing to the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires.

It will use two new Boeing 777 long-range aircraft delivered in the past three months for the new service. The flights, connecting in Doha with those from this country, provide indirect competition to SAA which flies directly to both cities but from Johannesburg, not from Cape Town.

They also compete with Malaysia Airlines, which flies directly to Buenos Aires from here. Qatar Airways, which was the first of the Middle Eastern airlines to fly to Cape Town, provides indirect flights from Doha to 86 destinations in other parts of the world, including Houston in the US and Melbourne in Australia.

Its chief executive, Akbar Al Baker, says it has seven new routes lined up this year and plans to open more within the next 12 months as its growth strategy continues to evolve. It is growing its fleet fast at a time when many other airlines, still recovering from the effects of the recession, reduced capacity when passenger numbers were falling and were still increasing it gradually when they were hit by the effects of last month’s volcanic ash cloud. Qatar, on the contrary, has been taking delivery on average of one new aircraft every month, some of which are being used to enhance existing services as well as opening new ones. Its new Boeing 777 LR aircraft have a total of 259 seats, 42 in business class and 217 in economy. Its business class seats convert into fully flat beds.

Qatar is ranked five stars for service and excellence by Skytrax, the UK-based aviation consultants whose annual surveys are based on replies from 16000 regular passengers. Qatar’s cabin crews were voted best in the Middle East for the seventh year running last year. It was voted the best airline in the Middle East for the fourth year running and its economy class was voted best in the world. It will have increased its fleet to a total of 120 aircraft – a mixture of Boeing and Airbus – by 2013, by which time it aims at flying to 210 destinations. It has five of the giant Airbus A380 on order, with the first due for delivery in 2012.

ACSA has started work on resurfacing the runway at George Airport, which the Civil Aviation Authority declared unfit for use in wet weather after an aircraft aquaplaned off it. Because of this Kulula and 1Time have both had to divert flights to Port Elizabeth during heavy rain.

But Solomon Makgale, head of communications at ACSA, said it was still disputing that a sealant on the runway was the cause of the accident and was still carrying out an investigation of the effect of water on the sealant. He said ACSA had agreed to “runway surface enhancements in the interest of returning the airport to normal use”.

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