Alaska Airlines cancels 44 flights over volcanic ash

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Ash from a remote volcano that started erupting last week has scrambled flight schedules for Alaska and may do so for at least a few more days, government and airline officials said on Monday.

A satellite image taken August 8, 2008 shows ash moving in a circular motion following the eruption of Kasatochi volcano in the Aleutian Islands. REUTERS/NOAA/Handout

Alaska Airlines said it canceled 44 flights between the most northern U.S. state and domestic and Canadian destinations after ash from the Kasatochi Volcano in the western Aleutians drifted over the southeast Alaska panhandle and parts of western Canada.

Ash from the volcano, which started erupting on Thursday, rose as high as 50,000 feet, said Chris Waythomas, a geologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage.

The cloud of sulfur dioxide and ash is still lingering within the general flight route between Alaska and the U.S. West Coast, he said.

“This could cause some problems for two or three days yet,” said Waythomas, noting that pilots are able to avoid the cloud during daylight. “But at night, I don’t think there’s any way for them to know where it is.”

The abrasive volcanic ash eats away at aircraft windshields, metal and, if sucked into engines, can cause dire problems.

The Alaska Airlines cancellations began Sunday and affected about 5,200 passengers, the airline said. Flights resumed on Monday, with extra flights added to accommodate delayed passengers.

Kasatochi, on a tiny uninhabited island 1,138 miles (1,832 km) west of Anchorage, is the third Aleutian volcano to erupt in the past month. The 1,030-foot (314-metre) volcano may be poised for another large explosion, but it is difficult to monitor because the remote site is not equipped with instruments, Waythomas said.

Elsewhere in the Aleutians, Okmok Volcano continues a period of unrest that started with an eruption on July 12. The 3,520-foot (1073-metre) volcano, 859 miles southwest of Anchorage, has periodically showered the fishing hub of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor with ash.

Also restless is Cleveland Volcano, which began emitting steam, lava and ash on July 25. That 5,676-foot (1,730-metre) volcano, 939 miles southwest of Anchorage, is one of the most active in Alaska.

Reporting by Yereth Rosen and Doina Chiacu, Edited by Daisuke Wakabayashi and Braden Reddall