VOLCANIC eruptions from a 3,300 m mountain in East Java have virtually shut down travel to and from Bali, just as the resort is gearing up for one of its peak travel seasons.
Lava and ash from Mount Raung have forced the closure of Denpasar International Airport 120 km away, disrupting flights and grounding thousands of travellers. As at Friday evening, more than 350 flights had been cancelled.
The mountain had started spurting lava and ash high into the air on Wednesday, forcing the authorities to raise the volcano's alert status to the second highest level.
Besides Denpasar International Airport, the authorities had shut down two domestic airports in East Java and both the domestic and international airports in Lombok. By Friday, the Lombok airports were re-opened but Denpasar, the main gateway to Bali, and the East Java airports remain closed till Saturday morning.
The homepage of Denpasar International Airport advised travellers to contact their respective airlines to confirm their flight status. Although the airport was scheduled to reopen at 9.30 pm on Friday, the closure was later extended to 6am (local time).
A Changi Airport spokesman said that flights to Denpasar were cancelled and airlines were monitoring the situation.
Singapore Airlines cancelled its flights on Friday and retimed those on Saturday; Jetstar Asia said that it would resume flights only when it considers the situation safe enough. Indonesia's national flag carrier Garuda began diverting its Bali-bound flights on Friday morning; in the afternoon, it cancelled all its flights to the area. The airline said on its Twitter page that flights to other airports in Indonesia would operate as usual.
Airlines around the region, including Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia and Thai Airways, also cancelled flights scheduled for Denpasar on Friday. Australian low-cost carrier Jetstar and its rival Virgin Australia were the first to announce flight cancellations on Wednesday, even before the Indonesian airports were closed.
Bali is one of Australia's top tourist destinations, especially during the Australian winter months of June and July. More than 900,000 Australians visited the island last year, said Indonesia's Central Bureau of Statistics.
The continued eruption of Mount Raung has also thrown the travel plans of millions of Indonesians into turmoil. Many had intended to set off ahead of Muslim celebrations of Eid next week.
Ngurah Wijaya, chairman of the Bali Tourism Board, was quoted by Bloomberg as having said: "We have to deal not only with cancellations from tourists, but also those who are stranded here, because they cannot leave." He added that the impact of the eruption can stretch out to three or four days.
In Singapore, only a small number of Singaporean travellers seem to have been directly affected. Dynasty Travel's director of marketing communications Alicia Seah told The Business Times that July is not a peak period for overseas travel among Singaporeans. One of its two Singaporean tour groups returned from Bali on Thursday, before the airport closures; the other group of four will fly home within two days, conditions permitting. Other local travel agencies also reported being minimally affected, but are monitoring the situation for updates.
The Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in Darwin in Australia reported that the ash cloud from Mount Raung has floated more than 300 km south-east of the volcano, and nearly 5 km up. Visibility has been significantly reduced in the past two days, as winds have pushed the ash cloud nearer Densapar Airport, Jetstar told Bloomberg.
The International Air Transport Association said that volcanic ash particles, with a melting point below the operating temperature of jet planes, can stick to the hot core of engines, which can lead to a loss of thrust and engine failure. Just five years ago, the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano grounded hundreds of flights and stranded 10 million travellers across Europe. The airline industry lost more than US$1.8 billion as a result.