Thursday, November 05, 2015

Bali trip cancelled due to airport closure

The 6 month long planning of our Bali trip has been ruined by fury of Mother Nature. Because of Volcanic ash, Bali airport is closed and I had to cancel our trip at the last moment. This post shares my experience- related information like what happens to your airline ticket, hotel booking and so on.

Indonesia was one the countries I wanted to visit since long time.

In May this year, I spotted a very cheap ticket to Bali- about Rs 8000+ from Chennai to Bali. But Bali to Chennai was little expensive. I found out that Jakartha to Chennai is very cheap and I could fly between Bali and Jakartha. After factoring for 20 kg baggage, credit card payment charges, for 4 people I booked tickets at an average ticket fare of Rs 17700- Chennai- Bali, Bali- Jakartha & Jakarta- Chennai (3 different PNRs). But this was 6 months ago (Booking done in May, travel in November)

Then I started planning the trip- we took leave from work to visit Bali, booked hotels (on, planned places to visit, did research on taxi, sim card and other aspects needed. If I were to go solo I wouldn’t have worried much, but since I planned this trip with family, I wanted to avoid disappointments and unwanted surprises. I took assistance from several people- Lakshmi Sharath, Dhananjaya Moorthy, Soori Hardalli, Mahesh Divya and others who gave valuable insights about exploring Bali and preparations to make and precautions to take.

Everything was looking great till the beginning of this week. Other guests arrived in Chennai, we were counting days to travel. Indian Gangster Chota Rajan’s arrest in Bali suddenly brought Bali to limelight in India. Early this week new broke out about the volcanic Ash erupting from nearby mountains. Initial news was that airport will be closed till Nov 5th, 8.45 AM and decision to open or extend the closure will be taken towards the end of this period. My flight was to arrive at Bali on 5th Nov, 7.20 PM so it was outside the earlier declared closure window- so we had some hope. Even the website that lists status of flight arrival and departure at Bali airport listed our flight as scheduled, not cancelled.

The Haze or volcanic ash is fine particles of metals emerging from volcano or such geological activity. They have a potential to stall an aircraft’s engine. Aircraft engines such huge quantity of air, compress it and burn fuel- unsolicited foreign particles from Haze can get into the engine and get stuck inside, resulting in structural damage to the engine components and thereby risking safety of the flight. Because of this risk, it is not safe to fly through if there’s large quantity of volcanic ash in air.

There was no communication from Air Asia about potential trouble. Airasia website was accepting booking for 5th Nov even on 4th evening. I kept checking for latest news on 4th night and 5th early morning. Also checked in twitter with hashtag like #bali #baliairport etc. There were no updates I could use. So I decided to go to airport as per plan and figure out. We were mentally prepared to come back but had a slim hope that things will get sorted out just in time.

I had done web check-in well in time (Air Asia allows web check in 2 weeks prior to departure date) so I skipped regular queue and went to counter meant for those who had done web checkin and had baggage to drop. We were duely informed about the situation in Bali and were told that we can’t check in. We were asked to wait. There were few other groups of passengers who were heading to Bali and were in same situation as we were.
  • Few were requesting counter staff that they be sent to Bangkok or some other destination where Indians get visa on arrival
  • Almost everyone wanted full refund, on the spot.
  • Few wanted to be allowed to fly till Kuala Lumpur and put on next available flight to Bali
Counter staff tried their best to explain the phenomenon of volcanic ash and how it is not a fault of Air Asia and how they can’t fly to Bali even if they want to. Once customers came to terms with the fact that their Bali trip is doomed, counter staff had to explain what will happen to customer’s money now. Air Asia doesn’t believe in giving refund in cash. Customers can rebook within 7 days at no extra cost or take some credit points which needs to be consumed within 90 days for some other booking. Air Asia staff refused to re-route guests to other viable destinations- such as Jakarta or anywhere else. Either you fly to your destination or go back.
AirAsia flight landing at Chennai airport
But one point I noted is that AirAsia airport staff were lying- they said airport is closed for one full week. This information couldn’t be confirmed online. I think they simply said it is closed for a week, because that will force customers to go back home. If they say it is closed only for today, then passenger may insist that they be rebooked on tomorrow’s flight which means extra work for airport staff. (Even later, confirmed news is that closure is extended by a day till further review- nowhere it is mentioned that Bali is closed for a week)

Airport staff also said they will update our PNRs with instruction that flight is cancelled and money should be credited back. But they would not give anything in writing to this effect. Mine was not a return ticket in same PNR- I had 3 different PNRs. If I can’t go to Bali, then I can’t fly Bali- Jakarta and Jakarta-Chennai as well, so all 3 tickets have to be processed for refund.

We understand it is not airline's fault and there is no certainty when things will improve and airport will reopen. Even if we are to reschedule for next day, there is still a fair chance that airport closure will be extended. It may open after 2-3 days but by then half of our vacation time would have been lost. There were also other risks in proceeding with the plan
  • What if volcanic ash resumes and airport gets closed again after we reach there? Staying back home is more safe than getting stuck in foreign airport
  • With thousands of passengers stranded, city of Bali must be in big disarray right now- guests extending their hotel stay, city's resources under pressure etc. Even if we make it, not very sure if we will be able to have a decent experience of Bali.
  • If I opt to reschedule, I need to reschedule 3 different PNRs- getting seats and successful and convenient rescheduling on all 3 is very tricky.
  • All planes will be full. It will take some time for situation to return to normal after flights resume. Hoping that we get priority over other passengers, without low fare ticket, in a budget carrier like AirAsia will be foolishness

We frantically checked other destinations we could possibly visit, to salvage our vacation. But last minute tickets are always expensive. Any sane destination would cost us 12-15k onwards per person (domestic) in ticket and going somewhere with family without proper planning.  If I was traveling alone I would have probably gone to some random destination, but with family, I felt it is best to head home and rethink what to do.

Getting out of airport was not easy. We had to wait for several minutes for dedicated security staff to arrive, scan our baggage, enter our passport details in a ledger. After some 15-20 minutes for all these we were allowed to go. We came out, hailed a taxi which dropped off passengers and headed home. Rs 1000 gone in airport trip for taxi expense.

I called Air asia call centre to be sure they are processing refund. "Sir please call back after 1 hour, we have not received any instructions on refund" was the reply when I called at 8.30 AM

I called later in the day, they accepted my request for refund (in terms of credit, not cash) on all 3 PNRs. Process would take 72 hours, I will get email only after it is complete, no acknowledgment or interim email. Now I need to use this credit within 90 days to book a fresh ticket.

I had booked some hotels via Cancelled those bookings and I was given a message indicating some cancellation fee. Have written to them explaining the reason for cancellation and requesting waiver of cancellation fee. Yet to get an update on that.

Friends and well wishers have expressed their support and offered tips and suggestions. Thanks to all of them. I will go to Bali for sure, but Indonesia has to wait. For now they have to manage with Chota Rajan.

Also read: Air Asia benchmark prices * Thailand posts * Singapore posts *


Arun Prasadh said...

Ohh that was very unfortunate that too after reaching airport. Hope you get to Bali in next 90 days and send us some beautiful pics.

Ashok Makhija said...

hello, we are booked for bali next diwali, hope this situation does not arrive that time, it is very bad to know that your trip gets cancelled because of mother nature's fury, may be you and your family's destiny to this location was made for some other days..

BRS said...

That's too bad.

Thanks for sharing your experience. I wish you luck for future travels.

Arun said...

This credit-refund thing looks very unfair. Especially when they are unable to provide the promised service, for whatever reason.

Swati & Sam said...

At least you are at home safe and sound ..

Everything happens for good , so cheer and book a trip to Thailand :)

Aravind GJ said...

That is very bad. It would have been more painful if flights were cancelled while returning.

But Air Asia policy of giving credits seems weird when they have cancelled the flights.

I am sure you will be heading to Bali in near future.

Shrinidhi Hande said...

@Aravind: True.. Viewing from Airasia's point of view, airport closure is not airline's fault either, so why should they loose revenue?

@Swati: No Thailand... South India by road right now

@Arun: As I replied above, it wasn't their fault either. Anyway low cost tickets do come with certain risks like this...

@BRS: Thanks Sir

@Ashok: Airpot is open now, so you should be able to fly as planned

@Arun Prasad-I need to book within next 90 days.. travel date can be anytime in next one year

Thanks everyone for your support.

VIP K said...

Air Asia is disastrous! Have heard such stories before as well.
They enjoyed your money at 0% interest rates + currency fluctuations for half a year!
It's better not to take a low cost carrier and go for a full serviced carrier since the difference wouldn't be huge. In one case I've heard people getting cheapest tickets but paid so much for the baggage that a full serviced airline prices would have been cheaper. One more Drawback is their terminal in KL is at a different location than the main terminal.