BALI: Flights to Bali were cancelled as Indonesia authorities closed the island's airport and raised the alert on Mount Agung volcano to the highest level, amid fears a significant eruption could be imminent.
Indonesia's national disaster agency said on Monday (Nov 27) that the exclusion zone around the volcano, which is 75km from Bali's tourist hub of Kuta, had been widened to 10km, with people living in the zone being urged to evacuate.
"The alert status for Mount Agung has been raised from level three to level four from 6am on Monday," said Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Centre spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho in a tweet on Monday morning.
In a separate tweet, Sutopo said that the international airport at Bali will be closed for 24 hours – from 7am on Monday until 7am on Tuesday.
Airport operator Angkasa Pura also announced on Monday evening that Lombok airport will be closed from 7.50pm to 6am on Tuesday.
The airport was closed on Sunday after volcanic ash from Mount Agung began moving in a southeastern direction towards Lombok, but reopened on Monday morning after conditions improved.
The decision on the closure was made after a coordination meeting between the airport authority, airlines, flight navigation service institution, as well as the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency.
"There are a total of 47 flights at the Lombok International Airport affected by this closure - 24 arrivals and 23 departures," said Angkasa Pura corporate secretary Israwadi, as reported by local online media Detik.com.
"Continuing plumes of smoke are occasionally accompanied by explosive eruptions and the sound of weak blasts that can be heard up to 12 km (seven miles) from the peak," the agency said in a statement.
"Rays of fire are increasingly visible from night to the following day. This indicates the potential for a larger eruption is imminent," it said.
According to the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in Darwin, Australia, there is "ash confirmed on the ground" at Denpasar airport as well as ash at FL300 (which refers to flight level at 30,000 feet) in the vicinity of the volcano.
Huge plumes of smoke have been pouring out of the volcano since Tuesday. Senior state volcanologist Gede Suantika said it was belching thick grey smoke as high as 3,400m early Monday.
Ash from Mount Agung has been covering villages nearby the volcano. Officials have distributed thousands of face masks to local residents.
About 25,000 people living nearby the mountain have already left their homes and evacuated since Mount Agung first started to spew smoke last Tuesday.
"TENS OF THOUSANDS" OF PASSENGERS AFFECTED
The closure of Bali's Denpasar airport is set to affect "tens of thousands" of passengers, airport spokesman Arie Ahsanurrohim said.
The spokesman said the closure of Denpasar Airport disrupted 445 flights and affected about 59,000 passengers, due to the eruption warning and the presence of volcanic ash from the volcano.
Five alternative airports have been prepared for airlines to divert inbound flights, such as airports in neighboring provinces, the spokesman added.
Bali airport's official website showed flights operated by Singapore Airlines, Sriwijaya, Garuda Indonesia , Malaysia Airlines and Jetstar had been cancelled.
Singapore Airlines (SIA) said that a total of 10 SIA and SilkAir flights scheduled to depart from and arrive at Denpasar airport on Monday and Tuesday have been cancelled.
The flights affected are SQ938, SQ939, SQ942, SQ943, SQ946, SQ947, SQ948, SQ949, MI176, MI175.
SIA added that passengers travelling to Bali between Tuesday and next Monday can contact the airline to rebook or request a refund of their tickets. For passengers who wish to rebook, the new travel date must commence on or before Jan 31, the airline said.
AirAsia also said it has cancelled all of its flights in and out of Bali and Lombok on Monday.
Low-cost airline Scoot said in a statement that it cancelled three flights – TR280/281, TR285/285 and TR 288/289 - on Monday to and from Bali’s Denpasar airport.
It will also stop the sale of flights to and from Bali for the travel period between Monday and Dec 4.
It added passengers that have booked to travel to and from Bali between Monday and Dec 4 can request a refund on their tickets. They can also re-book their flights to other destinations, or to Bali when flights resume; change fees have been waived.
An official from Indonesia's transport ministry said that Lombok Airport on nearby Lombok island had reopened after an earlier closure, because "no volcanic ash was detected".
LAST ERUPTION IN 1963
Mount Agung last erupted in 1963, killing about 1,600 people.
It rumbled back to life in September and authorities raised the alert to the highest level, forcing 140,000 people living nearby to evacuate.
The volcano's activity decreased in late October and many people returned to their home as the alert was lowered to the second-highest level.
But Mount Agung started rumbling again last Tuesday.
The mountain sent smoke up into the air on Saturday for the second time in a week in what volcanologists call a phreatic eruption -- one which is caused by the heating and expansion of groundwater.
Dozens of Balinese Hindus took part in ceremonies near the volcano on Sunday, offering prayers in the hope of preventing an eruption.
Officials later on Sunday said the activity could be a magmatic eruption -- one which involves the decompression of gas and results in the spewing of ash -- and advised people near the mountain to wear masks.
Mount Agung is one of more than 120 active volcanoes extending the length of Indonesia, which straddles the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Additional reporting by Saifulbahri Ismail