by Staff Writers
Sydney (AFP) June 01, 2014
Flights resumed over northern Australia Sunday as major ash plumes cleared from an Indonesian volcanic eruption that stranded thousands of passengers.
The city of Darwin was completely cut off from air traffic on Saturday by ash clouds drifting from the Sangeang Api volcano, forcing the cancellation of dozens of flights.
Passengers hoping to travel to Bali from Australia's west coast were also impacted by the plume.
Darwin airport said flights had resumed on Sunday afternoon, with national carrier Qantas Airways confirming it had restarted operations and budget airlines Jetstar and Virgin also set to return to the skies.
"Flights are coming back online but there are some scheduled changes so people still need to check with the airline with regards to what's happening with their particular flight," a Darwin airport spokeswoman said.
Airservices Australia, the government's airspace agency, said the plume had continued to dissipate overnight and throughout the day and skies were clearing.
"The ash plumes that may have affected flights into and out of Cairns and Townsville today have dispersed and will not affect flights. Brisbane flights will also be unaffected," the agency said.
"Decisions on whether or not flights will operate will be made by individual airlines and operators based on a careful assessment of all available information."
Indonesian transport ministry spokesman J.A. Barata said two airports on the volcano's neighbouring islands of Sumbawa and Sumba had been reopened and that a third affected on Timor island was now operating as usual after volcanic ash had been swept from the premises.
National carrier Garuda, which operates turbo-prop planes to hop between the resort island of Bali and the affected islands to its east, cancelled its flights in the region. Three domestic flights operated by other airlines had also been cancelled, said Barata.
"But visibility is fine. Some airlines are just being cautious," he said, adding that further eruptions were possible and would likely prompt further cancellations.
The Sangeang Api volcano began erupting Friday, and its ash is sweeping south towards Australia, prompting Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia to cancel Darwin flights.
"The volcano is continuously erupting," Tim Birch from the Bureau of Meteorology's Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in Darwin told AFP.
Birch said one plume was affecting northern Australia and impacting Darwin and was expected to linger for at least 18 hours.
Another was located over central Australia, which could cause problems for overland flights, while a third was about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Denpasar airport on Indonesia's Bali.
"All of the plumes will be affecting aviation," he said.
Surono, an Indonesian government volcanologist who goes by one name, said that Sangeang Api was spewing columns of ash up to 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) into the air on Saturday.
Virgin Australia cancelled flights to Denpasar airport late Saturday, as did Qantas offshoot Jetstar.
Indonesian flag carrier Garuda cancelled three flights to Denpasar from nearby airports, transport ministry spokesman J. A. Barata told AFP. However, Denpasar airport reported good visibility and was not itself affected by the ash, he said.
Two small airports close to the volcano in central Indonesia -- one on the island of Sumbawa and another on neighbouring Sumba -- closed Saturday due to the eruption, Barata said. The airport on Sumbawa was shut for several hours, while the second was due to remain closed until Sunday.
Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said it could take days for Australian services to return to normal.
"Depending on wind and other weather conditions, the ash has the potential to affect flights to and from other airports, including Brisbane, during coming days," he said.
"This is currently being fully assessed."
Airservices Australia has reportedly begun diverting international flights around the ash plume.
Australian aviation authorities recommend against flights into areas with visible volcanic ash clouds because the fine particles are hazardous to aircraft engines.
A spokeswoman for Darwin International Airport told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation it was not known when flights would resume.
"At this stage it's speculation... from what I can tell, as the ash moves it dissipates so it could be good news for tomorrow," she said.
"But going on past experience, this is usually [a] 24-hour type event."
More than 7,300 people had so far been evacuated from four villages close to the erupting volcano, said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia's national disaster agency.
He added there were so far no casualties.
Indonesia, home to around 130 active volcanoes, sits on the "Pacific Ring of Fire", a belt of seismic activity running around the basin of the Pacific Ocean.
In February, a huge volcanic eruption on the main island of Java killed several people, forced mass evacuations and prompted the closure of seven airports.
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