WHEN you think of Bali, you think of holidays and other things nice. But, not for the possibly hundreds of Malaysians stranded in the holiday resort where Mount Agung is spewing clouds of ash 400m high. How far the ash travels is anybody’s guess. No one knows when Mount Agung will erupt, but Nasa’s satellite has detected what the space agency calls “ a thermal anomaly” at its crater, meaning a path has been opened for the red-hot magma to make its way through the volcano’s crust. If that comes to pass, holidaymakers will stay stranded for a very long time. And, Mount Agung’s eruption is dangerous, too. Pyroclastic flows of hot gases, ash and rock debris can travel dozens of kilometres, and this was what killed 1,600 people when the 3,140m-high Mount Agung last erupted in 1963. And, volcano experts say ash clouds can travel as high as 20km. So, the faster people are taken out of the island the better.
For now, the airport has reopened, but how long it will remain so depends on the direction of the wind. It is not clear if Malaysia Airlines (MAS) or AirAsia is making arrangements to fly stranded passengers back home. What is clear is that MAS is offering refunds, but AirAsia is not. Given the circumstances, the airlines must seize the opportunity to put people before profit, and give corporate social responsibility its true meaning. Should the airport be closed again, the airlines must make arrangements to pick them up at the nearest airport. It is not refunds that the stranded Malaysians want at this time of difficulty, but the opportunity to be flown back home before it is too late. Many are without travel insurance, and some are out of money as they did not see the volcanic eruption coming. Others have no accommodation even. Many have made the airport their safe haven.
Airlines should extend their emergency communication channels to stranded passengers who want to know how they can get home, and when. It is true that if the airlines follow the law to the letter, stranded passengers, especially those without insurance, are not entitled to accommodation, meals or to be flown from another airport. In an emergency not of their making, what is needed is not a reading of the letter of the law, but more an interpretation of its spirit. Insurance companies, too, should be magnanimous during this time of need, instead of being picky with whether or not passengers were put on notice of the possible eruption of Mount Agung. They, too, must place people before profit and provide them accommodation and meals. People plan holidays many months in advance, long before the Indonesian government issued its warning last month, which was subsequently withdrawn when the volcanic activity ceased. Customer care means not abandoning your stranded passengers or the insured. Abandoned customers seldom return.