Belching Bromo Strands Foreign Tourists as Airlines Bail on Bali

By webadmin on 12:24 am Jan 29, 2011
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Made Arya Kencana, Dwi Lusiana, Fidelis E. Satriastanti & AFP

More than 30 international flights to and from the resort island of Bali were canceled on Friday, as dangerous ash continued to belch from an Indonesian volcano, airlines said.

Thousands of foreign tourists, mostly from Australia, remain stranded on the island after a cloud of ash from East Java’s Mount Bromo began drifting into airspace over Bali on Thursday.

The latest cancellations mean about 45 services have been scrapped since Thursday due to volcanic ash.

Australian budget airline Jetstar said on Friday it had canceled all seven of its return services flying from Australia and Singapore to Bali.

“We have to take a safety-first approach,” Jetstar spokesman Simon Westaway told Australian radio.

“The complexity is that while visibility can come and go, there is volcanic ash in the vicinity of Denpasar airport,” he said.

Sherly Yunita, spokeswoman for Ngurah Rai international airport, said about 1,300 passengers have been affected by flight cancellations, adding that she expected the number to increase if the situation continued.

“The cancellations have mostly impacted passengers to Australia and Singapore,” she said.

Virgin Blue, another Australian budget airline, said it had also canceled all of its flights to and from Bali on Friday. Almost 900 of its travelers were stranded on the island.

“Because of the cancellation we cannot fly home and go back to work,” said Pien Trussel, an Australian stuck at Ngurah Rai airport. Trussel was notified about the cancellation by Virgin Blue staff soon after arriving at the airport.

On Thursday, the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC) in Darwin, Australia, issued a Notice to Airmen (Notam) regarding the volcanic ash from Mount Bromo. The notice stated that the ash reached 1,000 meters from the crater in its latest eruption on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Herry Bakti S Gumay, director general of aviation transportation at the Ministry of Transportation, said that Bromo’s activity level was still safe for air travel.

“The data we received from Surono [head of the Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Agency] said that the situation is not the same as Merapi,” he said. “The [international] airlines do not have enough information. It is actually safe, but they are within their rights to cancel flights.”

Domestic flights are still operating as usual, he said.

On Friday afternoon, from an observation post in Ngadisari subdistrict, Probolinggo district in East Java, the volcano was observed belching smoke and ash high into the air.

“The highest volcanic cloud on Friday reached 800 meters from the crater. The wind has caused the ash to spread east toward Probolinggo,” said Muhammad Syafi’i, the head of the observation post.

Bromo straddles four districts in East Java: Malang, Pasuruan, Probolinggo and Lumajang.

Mount Bromo began rumbling in November last year.

The government had raised the eruption threat warning to the maximum red alert level before lowering it to level three last month. But Muhammad said the volcano’s alert status remains the same.

Dwi Putranto, the head of the military airbase at Malang’s Abdul Saleh airport, said the airport was operating as normal.

“The airport remains open for commercial flights and military training flights. The visibility is at 10 kilometers now,” he said.

In November last year, the eruption of Mount Merapi forced a number of international airlines to cancel flights to Jakarta because of concerns about air safety. The volcanic ash also caused United States President Barack Obama to cut short his visit to the country.

Mount Merapi, hundreds of kilometers east of Jakarta, has been spewing massive clouds of ash and gas high into the air for more than two weeks.

Following the volcano’s eruption last year, Yogyakarta’s Adi Sucipto airport was closed for about one week, affecting 42 domestic and three international flights.