Tokua Airport in East New Britain province was closed for some time, although flights recommenced this morning. But large numbers of people, including students, were stranded while the aiport was out of action, and it was difficult for others needing to visit Rabaul. To ease the backlog, East New Britain's Chamber of Commerce has engaged a shipping company to get people in and out of the province.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Nick Lyons, president, Chamber of Commerce, East New Britain
LYONS: The situation changed considerably yesterday, the rates which ash is coming from the volcano has reduced dramatically and late yesterday afternoon, the Civil Aviation Authorities have withdrawn the notice of closure on the airport and replaced it with a notice of warning, which means that commercial flights can now resume. And as of a few minutes ago, the first of the charter flights from the Newcrest Mine, at Lae, landed. So we're a lot nearer the end of the problem than the beginning, which is good news for us.
COUTTS: Well, that is very good news, but how long will it take now to get through the backlog of travellers and especially students needing to get back to their schools and universities?
LYONS: Well, I'm not quite sure. We think there's probably over 1,000 people whose travel plans have been disrupted, some of them will have found alternative arrangements, others the reason for their travel will have disappeared, and others will have had travel plans which were flexible, so they've been able to accommodate the delay.
The big concern at this time of year, it's always people returning to work from their annual holiday or students and so on who have to be in other centres by a given date. In the case of scholarship students, who have to be overseas by a given date. So there's been a considerable amount of anxiety here in the last couple of weeks over those people.
COUTTS: And are you still or will you continue to use the shipping companies and try and continue to move the people around and improve the backlog?
LYONS: Oh, most definitely, that's the sort of alternative arrangements which have been in place. They've been a number of small boats leaving from East New Britain over to the West Coast of New Ireland and connecting with road transport there to get to Kavieng. And earlier this week, we were able to link one of the passenger shipping runs with some Air Niugini flights yesterday, so we saw a shipful of people leave here on Tuesday, go to Kavieng, get out from Kavieng on Air Nuigini's flights and be replaced by passengers who arrived late last night in Kavieng. We're not quite sure on the numbers yet, but we should hear that in an hour or so from the shipping people. But we think probably 100 or so on their way back now.
COUTTS: Well, so they're big numbers.
LYONS: Oh, yeah.
COUTTS: The travellers who have prepaid or prepurchased tickets. Will the airlines honour those tickets?
LYONS: What the airlines have done, well certainly Air Nuigini. I believe the other ones. But what the airlines have done is they've said that they will allow people to rebook at a later date without penalty and they will allow people to change their booking, to fly from an adjacent airport, either Hoskins, in East New Britain or Kavieng in New Ireland and they can fly from those without penalty or surcharge. But they recognise the nature of the problem.
COUTTS: Will they be able to put on extra and additional flights to help move the passengers around?
LYONS: We've made that request, we haven't had a response. I would imagine that later on today, we will get information that will say when commercial scheduled flights are going to resume and at what pace they're going to be able to clear the backlog. There's a similar backlog of cargo, air freight, medical supplies, mail, newspapers and so on. So there's probably some, a fair pay load for some extra flights.
COUTTS: And the people who've been stranded there. Was there an issue of accommodation or food and supplies getting in and out to accommodate the people still in the villages, who are not allowed to go back to their homes and their workplaces?
LYONS: No, I think any issues like that would have occurred at other ports where people are in transit, trying to get here. I would imagine that would have been more of a sitaution, for example, in Port Moresby or Lae, if people were in transit there on they're way here. People here were mostly people in the home community anyway waiting to get out of, or waiting to get back to their jobs after leave.
COUTTS: And have you had any official word on the tarvau vua, the ash is quietened down now, but will it stay that way? Do they know if the air will stay clear or whether there can be a reoccurence of the ash from Tavurvur?
LYONS: Most certainly. We here officially there's a bulletin everyday and there are updates every few hours from the Observatory here, which is very well set up and manned by some very dedicated people. So there's no shortage of information and from the very beginning they made it clear that a catastrophic event was not to be expected, but that rather we were heading for a period of several weeks of disruption, because of ash emission and that coupled with the wind direction, this time of year, blows the ash straight into the airport.
COUTTS: I was going to say, is there much ash still on the ground, not just in the airport, but in and around Tavurvur? Is it still evident?
LYONS: No, very little. The ash has blown directly from the volcano, over the ocean and down onto the airport.