A passenger uses his mobile phone at the almost deserted Qantas domestic terminal in Sydney's airport
A passenger uses his mobile phone at the almost deserted Qantas domestic terminal in Sydney's airport

Australia faces air transport chaos after ash from Chile's Cordón Caulle volcano shut the country's busiest airports.

Thousands of travellers were stranded after Qantas cancelled all domestic flights in and out of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra on Tuesday until at least Thursday. International flights have also been affected, with all Qantas planes due to land on Wednesday diverted or delayed until Thursday.

Virgin has also cancelled flights out of Sydney and Melbourne until further notice. "The ash plume is at a very low level and we're not comfortable flying at those levels," said Virgin Australia spokeswoman Danielle Keighery.

The ash cloud from the volcano is circling Earth for a second time, and delayed more than 700 flights across Australia and New Zealand last week.

Desperate to reach their planned destination, passengers are now using whatever means possible and extra bus services have been put on.

The bureau of meteorology's volcanic ash advisory centre says the plume has travelled more than 2,500 miles (4,000km) in the past 24 hours and is "clearly visible on satellite imagery". It is hovering at between 5 and 8 miles.

Commenting on the situation, Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority spokesman Peter Gibson said that "When you take out major centres like Sydney and Melbourne, the knock-on effects of that are huge and that's unfortunate, but safety has to come first."