Ash from Chile's Cordón Caulle volcano grounds domestic flights in and out of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

© Greg Wood/AFP/Getty ImagesA Qantas and a Virgin plane sit on the tarmac at the international airport in Sydney as the Chilean ash cloud grounds flights.
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 afternoon, 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, after last week delaying about 700 flights across Australia and New Zealand.

Passengers have been using whatever means possible to get to their destinations. Extra bus services have been put on, while three men paid a taxi driver A$1,200 (£770) to drive them for 10 hours from Melbourne to Sydney.

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.

Hundreds of thousands of passengers have been disrupted across the country, according to Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority. "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," said its spokesman, Peter Gibson.