Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia have announced multiple flight cancellations to airports in East Malaysia (also known as Malaysian Borneo) due to the eruption of an Indonesian volcano known as Mount Ruang on April 16, 2024. According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM), Mount Ruang is a volcano located near Manado City in North Sulawesi province in Indonesia, located around 800km (500 miles) to the southeast of the Malaysian mainland.

The volcano began erupting at 21:45 local time on April 16, 2024 and continued with a further four major eruptions on April 17, 2024. Following the eruptions, volcanic ash clouds have been observed within the Kota Kinabalu Flight Information Region (FIR) which have been assessed as posing a significant risk to aircraft safety. This FIR region covers the entire island of Borneo, to the north of the location of Mount Ruang and to the east of Malaysia.

At 06:00 on April 18, 2024, the Malaysian Meteorological Department issued a Significant Meteorological (SIGMET) notice which indicated ash clouds moving westerly at a speed of 30 knots from the ground’s surface to 55,000 feet and which were intensifying.

Consequently, as a result of the intensifying ash cloud, Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia decided to cancel all flights scheduled to operate between airports in Malaysia to nine airports in Borneo on April 18, 2024. Affected airports on the island include those at Kota Kinabalu, Tawau, Sandakan, Labuan, Miri, Sibu, Bintulu, Kuching, and Brunei, until 08.00 on Friday, April 19, 2024, at the earliest.

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Volcanic ash clouds can cause severe damage to aircraft engines and aircraft systems which can potentially lead to engine failures, reduced visibility, and damage to other critical aircraft components. According to CAAM, volcanic ash can also interfere with aircraft avionics, posing a serious threat to flight safety. The agency has advised all aviation stakeholders to exercise extreme caution and implement appropriate measures to mitigate the risks associated with volcanic ash encounters.

Additionally, the Malaysian regulator has also provided a list of recommendations which include all air operators to closely monitor meteorological updates, volcanic ash advisories, and NOTAMs issued by relevant authorities. It also reminded pilots to exercise vigilance and adhere strictly to established procedures and guidelines for avoiding volcanic ash encounters, including diverting flight paths, emergency response plans, altering altitudes, and maintaining communication with air traffic control.

It also urged airports within the affected area including Tawau and Lahad Datu to implement measures to mitigate the impact of volcanic ash on ground operations such as regular monitoring of runway conditions and implementing appropriate cleaning procedures.

In Indonesia, authorities have ordered a shutdown of its international airport in Manado City on the island of Sulawesi for 24 hours. On the ground, authorities are also rushing to evacuate 11,000 residents from the nearby area which includes the remote island of Tagulandang which is home to about 20,000 people.

In all, Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia have canceled 19 flights due to operate between Malaysia and Borneo on April 18, 2024, with others likely to follow.

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“Given the evolving situation, Malaysia Airlines will continue to closely monitor developments,” said an airline statement. “Further updates regarding flight cancellations will be updated here and communicated directly to affected customers. We are working to accommodate passengers affected by the cancellation of flights on alternative flights once the situation progressively improves.”

“Malaysia Airlines requests that passengers update their contact details via My Booking on Malaysia Airlines’ website to receive timely updates from time to time via email and SMS. The safety of our passengers and crew remains of utmost importance to Malaysia Airlines,” added the airline.

In 2010, major air travel disruption occurred throughout the airspace of Europe following an eruption of Mount Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. At the time, the airspace closures that resulted caused the travel plans of millions of passengers to be disrupted for weeks in what was described at the time as the largest air traffic shutdown since the Second World War.

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