The long queue at the airport’s Batik Air office at Kuching Airport. (Photo by Lynette Tan)

By Joseph Masilamany

Apr 20 2024

FOR the world’s third largest island, Borneo, to be declared “a no-fly zone” for several hours on Apr 18 was unprecedented. The melee that ensued with more than 20,000 passengers stranded in various airports – not being able to fly in or fly out from airports in the East Malaysian states as well as from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore was unfortunate.

However, passengers affected by the cancellation of flights due to drifting volcanic ash over the Borneo airspace from Mount Ruang’s several eruptions on Sulawesi Island on Apr 17 said the disruptions to their travel plans were inconvenient but a necessary precaution to avert a potential air disaster.

Speaking to Catholic Sabah, DAP Politician and Chairman of the Sarawak Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board (LPKP), Michael Kong who was stranded in Miri with a retinue of his management staff, including the board’s director Cornelia Wong said, “My team and I were in Miri for a board meeting and were supposed to return to Kuching by the 6.20 pm flight on Apr 18, but we were informed of the cancellation of our Miri-Kuching flight.”

Kong said some of the staff members decided to drive back by hired cars but me and six other staff decided to take the 9.00 pm Miri-Kuching express coach to get back to Kuching. “We decided to return by bus, as we were not sure when the flights would resume, and all of us had engagements in Kuching. I have a court trial coming up next week from Monday to Thursday.  So, I need to return home to Kuching to clear some work and prepare my file for the trial,” said Kong, a lawyer, who was still travelling, when contacted.

He said the airline only offered a refund of the airfare by credit, but there was no offer for accommodation and meals. “Previously when I was stranded in Sibu due to my MAS flight being unable to fly, immediate arrangements were made for a meal, one night of hotel stay, and priority on the next flight out of Sibu,” added Kong.

However, Kong praised the airport authorities for taking the necessary action to cancel the flights as a precaution. “It is better to be safe than sorry. It is also good that within half a day, the flights resumed last night in and out of Sarawak. We must commend the airlines and the authorities for looking into the situation regularly and this has allowed the early resumption of flights,” he added.

Another passenger bound for Kuala Lumpur, Lynette Tan who was booked into Batik Air’s OD1633 at 11.15 am flight said she had checked in at 9.30 am on Apr 18, and while waiting in line for boarding received an SMS message from Batik Air: “Flight delayed, due to natural disaster. Mount Ruang eruption. New estimated departure time will be advised soon.” Tan who is assemblyman, Baru Bian’s PA, said she had official matters to attend to in Kuala Lumpur and also to meet up with family and friends.      

All smiles on board the Miri-Kuching express bus. The stranded team from the Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board boarded a bus to return home after their flight cancellation. Board Chairman Michael Kong is standing in the middle. Director of the board, Cornelia Wong, is sitting right with her hand on her chest. (Photo by Michael Kong)

She said she received a second message from the airline, saying her flight had been cancelled.    

“There was a long queue at the Batik Air office at the airport. I phoned the call centre while waiting but was kept on hold for so long that I gave up. I stood in the queue for two and a half hours. Those who were before me told us that the next available flight was on Tuesday next week. Batik Air has only two flights a day for the Kuching-KUL route.”

Tan said she was offered a free rescheduling or refund. “I opted for a refund. And  I was told it would take 30 days to redeem the cash. They did not ask me anything about food and accommodation but that was not necessary for me as I live just five minutes away from the airport. I do not know what the tourists were offered.

“People in the queue waited patiently, there was no fuss or drama. I guess everyone knew it wasn’t the fault of the airlines. We were just resigned to the long wait. Yes, I think safety in the skies is of paramount importance.”  

According to Tan, the airport deployed some uniformed personnel to help out, not sure if they were army reserves. Saw a few more police personnel at the airport than the usual numbers.  

“I went to the check-in counter to ask about my suitcase but it was closed. One of the uniformed personnel asked me to go down to the arrival lounge. Once there, a policeman told me that Batik Air had sent all the check-in luggage to their office and I finally collected it from there.”

Tan said she will fly again to Kuala Lumpur once the skies are clear.

However, she said, “Perhaps the airlines could have contingency plans for such events to allow passengers to reschedule or cancel online so we don’t have to stand for so long and wait. This waiting was the difficult part. The instructions could be given by SMS to the affected passengers. I felt sorry for the old folks and those with young kids,” she added.

Tan said, “Small gestures from the airlines such as handing out water bottles or bringing out more chairs for senior citizens would have been appreciated.”

The airports affected were Kuching, Miri, Bintulu, and Sibu in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu, Labuan, Tawau, and Sandakan in the Sabah state. Flight cancellations also affected passengers in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore heading for East Malaysia. Singapore’s budget airline Scoot cancelled a total of six flights between the city-state and Indonesia, following multiple eruptions of Mount Ruang.

The Sulawesi volcano in Indonesia spewed an ash column more than 1.5 km into the sky, prompting local authorities to evacuate thousands of people and shut down the nearest airport in Manado city on the island.  

For the record on Jun 24 1982, a British Airways Boeing 747-236B flew into a cloud of volcanic ash spewed by the eruption of Mount Galunggung around 110 miles south-east of Jakarta – failing all its four engines.

Flight BA 009 experienced a near catastrophe when it lost power. The crew declared an emergency but successfully restarted the engines before making an instrument-only landing attempt. This incident has since raised awareness about the dangers of volcanic ash to aviation and led to increased precautions to prevent a similar occurrence.