Bali airport struggling to clear backlog of flights after volcano disrupts nearly 900 flights

Passengers wait for their delayed flights at Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, Indonesia, on July 12, 2015.
Passengers wait for their delayed flights at Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, Indonesia, on July 12, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

DENPASAR, Indonesia (AFP) - The Indonesian authorities at Bali's international airport were fighting on Monday to clear a backlog after almost 900 flights were cancelled or delayed in recent days due to a volcanic eruption, causing travel chaos during the peak holiday season.

Mount Raung on Indonesia's main island of Java, which has been rumbling for weeks, sent an ash cloud floating over Bali on Thursday, forcing the airport to close for two days.

Thousands of tourists who were visiting the resort island famed for its palm-fringed beaches found themselves stuck at Ngurah Rai airport, near Bali's capital Denpasar, anxiously watching departure boards, sitting and sleeping on the floor.

The airport closed again on Sunday as the ash returned but reopened several hours later after the authorities gave the all-clear.

Officials said the clouds of ash continued to drift away from Bali on Monday, giving airport authorities a chance to clear the backlog, which they said would take about three days.

"We are doing this as quickly as possible as the ash could come back any time," airport official Yulfiadi, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told AFP.

Between Thursday and Sunday, a total of 873 flights were cancelled or delayed, Mr Yulfiadi said.

Most airlines resumed flights on Sunday evening after the airport reopened, but Australian carriers Virgin Australia and Jetstar decided to keep services to Bali on hold. Many Australians are stuck in Bali after spending the school break on the island.

Virgin Australia also cancelled its flights to and from Bali on Monday, saying their forecasters had warned that conditions were not suitable, while Jetstar resumed services during daylight hours.

Airport manager Trikora Harjo said the airport was operating normally again, adding: "The weather is good so I am not sure why one or two airlines have chosen not to fly."

The disruption also came at a bad time for Indonesians, as millions set off on holiday ahead of the Muslim celebration of Eid this week. The airport is providing buses for Indonesians seeking to leave Bali for the holy festival.

The authorities raised the alert status of Mount Raung, one of 130 active volcanoes in Indonesia, late last month to the second highest level, after it began to spew lava and ash high into the air.

The main concern for airlines regarding volcanic ash is not that it can affect visibility but rather that it could damage jet engines, according to experts.

Ash turns into molten glass when it is sucked into aircraft engines and in extreme cases can cause them to shut down.