Volcanoes shut Indonesian airports during holiday rush

Volcanic ash and clouds are illuminated by lava from the crater of Mount Raung, as seen from Songgon, Banyuwangi East Java, Indonesia on July 11, 2015.
Volcanic ash and clouds are illuminated by lava from the crater of Mount Raung, as seen from Songgon, Banyuwangi East Java, Indonesia on July 11, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS/ANTARA FOTO

SURABAYA, Indonesia (AFP) - Ash spewing from volcanoes closed six airports across Indonesia Thursday, including in the country’s second-biggest city, leaving many travellers stranded on the eve of the Muslim Eid holiday.

The international airport serving Surabaya, the country’s biggest city after the capital Jakarta, and four smaller airports were closed by the eruption of Mount Raung on the main island of Java, the transport ministry said.

The airport on the remote, eastern island of Ternate was shut due to ash drifting from erupting Mount Gamalama, the ministry said.

The biggest blow to the millions in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country trying to head home to celebrate with their families came with the closure of Surabaya, one of the country’s busiest airports.

Thousands of weary travellers packed out the airport terminals, with long lines forming at ticket counters and people sitting and sleeping on the floor.

Indonesian flag carrier Garuda said it had cancelled 48 flights to and from Surabaya, but it was not immediately clear how many flights in total were axed at the airport.

In recent days, people across the vast archipelago have taken to planes, boats and cars to head to their home towns and villages to celebrate Eid, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and falls on Friday.

The transport ministry said the airport at Surabaya and two others would stay closed until at least early Friday.

The airports at Jember and Banyuwangi on Java, close to Mount Raung, would stay closed until at least Friday afternoon.

There was no immediate indication when the airport on Ternate might reopen.

The closures would be “updated continually to adjust to the developing situation related to the spread of volcanic ash from Mount Raung,” said a transport ministry statement.

The shutdowns came just days after the airport on the resort island of Bali was closed by ash from Mount Raung, stranding thousands of foreign holidaymakers.

Bali airport was open and operating normally on Thursday.

Disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said that Mount Raung was hurling thick smoke up to 2,000m into the air on Thursday which was drifting west.

However, he added it was not yet necessary to evacuate anyone living in the area.

Air traffic is regularly disrupted by volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, which is home to 130 active volcanoes.

The main concern for airlines regarding volcanic ash is not that it can affect visibility but rather that it could damage aircraft, as it turns into molten glass when sucked into plane engines, according to experts.