Indonesian Fires Force Flight Cancellations and Airport Delays

 - September 16, 2019, 10:37 AM
Lion Air and its subsidiaries canceled 81 flights on September 15 due to Indonesian forest fires. (Photo: Airbus)

Ongoing forest fires across the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan continue to generate toxic clouds of smog across the Straits of Malacca to neighboring Malaysia, triggering widespread flight disruptions and a diplomatic row between the two nations.

According to Indonesia’s Ministry of Transport, dozens of flights to and from five domestic airports in the provinces of Central and West Kalimantan have been canceled, diverted, or delayed over the last week due to fluctuating visibility. On Monday, airport authorities had to close Supadio International Airport after visibility fell to 1,800 feet.

On the central-eastern coast of Sumatra, Pekanbaru’s main airport—Sultan Syarif Kasim II International Airport in Riau—faced closures on Friday while hazy conditions disrupted flight schedules at Pinang Kampai Airport in Dumai.

Airlines bearing the brunt of the worsening haze include privately-owned Lion Air Group and its subsidiaries, Lion Air, Wings Air, and Batik Air, which saw 81 flight cancellations, 63 delays, and nine flights diverted on Sunday. National flag carrier Garuda Indonesia and its low-cost arm Citilink had to make several schedule adjustments and canceled a total of 18 flights. According to the Ministry of Transport, the most affected services involve flights to and from Pontianak, the capital of the West Kalimantan.

Authorities scheduled cloud seeding operations over Malaysia’s haze-affected states Selangor and Johor on Monday following the closure of hundreds of schools across the country last week. On Saturday, safety concerns over poor visibility left more than 500 passengers stranded at Ipoh’s Sultan Azlan Shah Airport and forced the diversion of another 555 passengers bound for Ipoh to Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport in Subang. While the scope of the haze-hit areas is constantly shifting, data compiled by Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency on Saturday revealed that thick clouds of smog had engulfed Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak of Malaysia, and Singapore. The haze situation has since improved in Singapore.

Forest fires caused by open burning in plantations have become a near-annual event in Indonesia, prompting widespread flight cancellations, airport closures, and mass evacuation of residents. Last week saw Indonesia’s environment minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, shifting part of the blame to its neighbor, claiming smog could have originated from fires burning across Malaysia. The Minister also denied recurrence of transboundary haze crossing from Indonesia to other Southeast Asian nations.

The minister’s claims drew a rebuttal from her Malaysian counterpart, who posted data showing 474 hotspots in Kalimantan and 387 in Sumatra, compared with only seven hotspots in Malaysia. Diplomats from Malaysia sent a note to their counterparts Indonesia earlier this month, requesting authorities take immediate action over the forest fires.