Bali airport reopens, bringing respite to thousands of stranded travellers

Stranded tourists listen to airport officials following the volcanic eruption of Mount Agung at Ngurah Rai international Airport in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, on Nov 29, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Bali's Mount Agung erupting, as seen at night from the Kubu sub-district in Karangasem Regency on Nov 28, 2017. PHOTO: AFP
A long exposure photograph shows the Mount Agung volcano spewing hot volcanic ash seen from Amed in Bali, Indonesia on Nov 28, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
A flight information board shows the list of cancelled flights due to Mount Agung at the I Gusti Ngurah Rai International airport in Denpasar, Bali on November 28, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - Indonesian authorities reopened Bali's international airport on Wednesday (Nov 29) afternoon, bringing some respite to thousands of travellers stranded on the holiday island following the eruption of the Mount Agung volcano.

AirNav Indonesia confirmed that operations at the airport, closed since Monday, would resume at 3pm. In a statement, the state-run air navigation service operator said the decision to reopen the airport came after a coordination meeting attended by the relevant regulators and authorities as well as the Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Meteorology (BMKG).

Volcanology and Disaster Mitigation Centre chief I Gede Suantika said the reopening of the airport was possible due to a change in wind direction, which according to the BMKG will blow from north-west to north, to south-east and south with a speed of up to 10-knots at 24,000 feet, and away from the airspace above Bali airport.

"Yes, it was due to the change in wind direction, but the downside is there is now the possibility of Lombok airport being closed again," he told The Straits Times.

Officials cautioned however that the only direct international gateway to the island could be shuttered again if the winds changed direction and ash and smoke pose a risk to flights. They had earlier warned that the the runways at the I Gusti Ngurah Rai International Airport may have to remain closed until the weekend.

The airport shutdown affected 57,792 passengers on some 430 flights, both international and domestic, as of Wednesday, said Ngurah Rai airport spokesman Arie Ahsanurrohim. Other reports, however, estimated that the number of travellers affected was far higher and could be as many as 120,000.

President Joko Widodo, in the meantime, has ordered relevant ministries and agencies to ensure that affected travellers and residents in Bali are taken care of well.

Speaking to reporters at an event at the Raffles Jakarta hotel on Wednesday, the president said he had also directed Indonesia's National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), police, military and search and rescue agency, Basarnas, to attend to evacuees who have had to abandon their homes.

"I do not want any victims because of this eruption," he said.

Indonesian immigration authorities said on Wednesday they will extend visas for foreigners in Bali who were stranded and had technically overstayed their visa because flights were cancelled.

A large plume of white and grey ash and smoke hovered above Mount Agung on Wednesday, after overnight rain partially obscured the fiery glow seen at its peak in the last few days, according to a Reuters report.

The news agency also said some stranded Chinese tourists appeared confused and upset over their predicament.

"All the Chinese people here feel (it is) dangerous (because of) the mountain," said Mr Richard Cao. "You know in China we don't have such a mountain and it is the first time we faced this kind of problem."

Another said his group had received little help in efforts to leave, apart from being told to take a ferry to the neighbouring island of Java and fly out via Surabaya. "The travel agency left us alone," said the passenger, who was not identified. "They told us we need to go to Surabaya, but they couldn't even book the ticket, so why should we go to Surabaya?"

While the airport in Denpasar is closed, travellers have begun to make their way overland to Java to catch a flight from Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, or Blimbingsari airport in Banyuwangi.

Singapore budget airline Scoot, for instance, on Wednesday morning started moving its passengers by bus from Bali to Juanda airport. But the journey, which includes a short ferry ride, takes more than 18 hours and many flights out of Surabaya are also fully booked.

The buses taking Scoot passengers to Surabaya daily are also on a first-come-first served basis, and some passengers have decided to make their own way out of the island by private charter cars or vans.

Balitrac, a local limousine company, with a fleet of 75 vehicles, has started plying to Juanda, with five carloads of tourists leaving on Wednesday.

A company representative told The Straits Times that a ride cost a party of six, 3 million rupiah (S$298), inclusive of a driver.

"It's not so bad (with the costs) spread out between the four of us," said a Singaporean tourist who asked not to be named. "And I really need to be back home because I return to work next Monday."

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