By Gde Putra Wicaksana, AFP
Denpasar, Indonesia — Indonesia extended to Saturday the closure of three airports, including on the holiday hotspot of Bali, due to drifting ash from a volcano, spelling more flight cancellations and travel chaos for thousands of vacationers.
Authorities closed the airport on Bali, the international airport on popular Lombok island, and three others serving domestic routes late Thursday as Mount Raung on Java spewed clouds of ash into the sky.
The closure of Bali airport came during peak season, when tourists flock to the tropical island to enjoy its palm-fringed beaches, and crowds of anxious visitors packed out the terminal buildings as they waited for more information about their flights.
The government initially said all airports would not be operational until late Friday. But later in the day, the transport ministry said that Bali and two small airports in East Java would remain closed until at least Saturday morning.
“All three of them will be closed until 10:00 a.m. tomorrow,” ministry spokesman J.A. Barata told AFP. “The air is still not clear.”
Lombok’s international airport, and a smaller one on the island, were re-opened earlier Friday.
Tourists described chaotic scenes at Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport. Katie Nagar, an American expatriate, described arriving at the domestic terminal to discover her flight to Jakarta on Indonesian flag carrier Garuda had been canceled and rescheduled to Sunday.
“There’s basically just hundreds of people camped out on the grassy lawns in front of the airport. There’s lines of hundreds of people waiting to talk to customer service,” she told AFP.
Many were also waiting in the international terminal, with some trying to seek information from airport officials while others were sitting or sleeping on the floor.
The travel chaos came at a busy time in Bali, with many Australians visiting the island during the school break and millions of Indonesians setting off on holiday ahead of the Muslim celebration of Eid next week.
Trikora Harjo, general manager at Ngurah Rai airport near Denpasar, Bali’s capital, said that 330 flights — 160 domestic and 170 international — had been canceled at the airport due to the ash cloud.
Garuda said it had canceled a total of 112 flights Friday. Most were to and from Bali airport, but 18 were to other airports affected by the ash cloud. AirAsia, Virgin Australia, Jetstar, and Air New Zealand also confirmed flights to Bali had been canceled.
Authorities raised the alert status of Mount Raung, a 3,300-meter (10,800-foot) volcano, late last month to the second highest level after it began to spew lava and ash high into the air.
Government vulcanologist Surono, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said eruptions were continuing at the volcano Friday, and it was producing flames and a thundering sound. But authorities said no evacuations were necessary as those living in the area were already a safe distance away.
Air traffic is regularly disrupted by volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, which sits on a belt of seismic activity running around the basin of the Pacific Ocean and is home to the highest number of active volcanoes in the world, around 130.
It also occurs in other parts of the world — in 2010, the eruption of an Icelandic volcano caused the biggest closure of European airspace in peacetime, halting 100,000 flights and stranding 8 million passengers.
Australian carriers Virgin Australia and Jetstar began canceling flights earlier than other airlines, and had already axed a number of services in recent days even before Bali airport was fully closed.
Virgin Australia said in a statement Friday that “our team of meteorologists continue to work closely with the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in Darwin and monitor the situation. Once conditions improve, additional flights will be scheduled between Australia and Denpasar to ensure we can have guests on their way as soon as possible.”
Photo: Denpasar Airport, Bali, Indonesia via Wikimedia Commons