Volcanic Ash Could Prevent Obama Visit to Indonesia (Again)

In the last twelve hours, international airlines have canceled all flights into and out of Jakarta’s airports. The airlines are concerned about the effects of the volcanic ash from the erupting volcano Mt. Merapi, 450 km to the east. Earlier today, the ash reached an altitude of 8 kilometers, putting it in the airliners’ flight paths. Domestic airlines, however, continue to take off and land as scheduled, and airport officials told wire services that the foreign airlines’ move was premature.

With President Obama scheduled to visit Jakarta on Tuesday, one has to wonder whether Air Force One will be able to reach Jakarta. If it cannot, the trip will have to be called off yet again– the fourth time this year. Indonesian Presidential spokesman Julian Aldrin Pasha told reporters in Yogyakarta on Saturday evening that he does not expect that will happen.

A White House staffer traveling with President Obama in India tells me that the White House does not yet know whether the ash will be a problem on Tuesday, but has begun to consider the possibility that it will be. When asked whether the White House would be prepared to hold the scheduled meetings in an Indonesian city unaffected by the ash could, the staffer told me that changing cities would require at least a week’s notice, and so is unlikely to happen now.

Other options may remain. The White House could hold a brief bilateral at an Indonesian airfield, which would require less advance security work. In 2003, when President George W. Bush and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri held a bilateral at Ngurah Rai Airport in Bali, the American President never left the airfield. Doing so next week, should the ash cloud prohibit a landing in Jakarta, would show the White House’s determination to visit Indonesia this year after the previous scrubbed attempts.

If President Obama cannot visit Indonesia this year, there is always next year– the President has committed to attending the East Asia Summit in Bali next fall, when Indonesia hosts the annual meeting and the United States and Russia join it for the first time.

UPDATE: On Sunday morning in Washington, ABC News’ Ann Compton reported that flights of U.S. government equipment and personnel into Jakarta in advance of the President’s visit had stopped flying at night as a precaution. On Monday morning in Washington, however, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced that he did not anticipate a need to cancel the visit, and that the White House expected to land in Jakarta on Tuesday afternoon (Jakarta time), as scheduled.

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