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Jakarta. Nearly 500 police officers were deployed to quell disturbances that occasionally flared into violence at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport on Friday as thousands of angry Lion Air customers were forced to wait for up to 24 hours due to a series of delays that went largely unexplained by the low-cost carrier.
The passengers’ frustration had been brewing since Wednesday night with Lion and airport officials providing no explanation for severe flight delays.
Waiting passengers said they were given no food or temporary accommodation as compensation.
Some passengers on Thursday lashed out at anyone spotted wearing a Lion Air uniform.
Local television stations even reported that some passengers held Lion Air officials captive, blocking their exit from airport waiting rooms on demand that they furnish some confirmation as to when passengers would be able to fly out or receive a refund.
“There are hundreds, even thousands of passengers stranded,” said one passenger, who goes the name Aldi, on Friday.
“Just imagine, since morning not a single passenger was flown. We just want a refund, but don’t know who to talk to. There was no one at [Lion Air’s] counter, the manager is nowhere to be seen, we can’t call [Lion Air’s] call center.”
On Friday, a group of passengers forced their way onto the airport’s Terminal 3 apron, besieging a parked Lion Air plane.
The angry mob’s presence disrupted other flights, mainly those of AirAsia, with whom Lion shares Terminal 3, forcing AirAsia to shift its operations to Terminal 2, AirAsia spokeswoman Audrey Progastama Petriny told detik.com.
In a statement, Lion Group’s corporate secretary Dwiyanto Ambar Hidayat said the company was having problems refunding the passengers because it was “short on cash,” he wrote on Friday morning.
“We will ensure that we ... compensate all passengers and provide a full refund. Lion Air’s management is not standing still and continues to try to sort this [delay] as soon as possible.
Dwiyanto said “foreign objects” have damaged three of its planes, causing a domino effect that disrupted other flights.
On Friday afternoon, Lion Air released another statement saying that it has canceled all flights for that day “to reevaluate” its operations.
“For future passengers who wish to reschedule their flight with Lion Air, they can book [another flight free of charge],” Dwiyanto said but added that they can only travel between Monday and Wednesday next week. “We apologize for today’s cancelation, but the step is necessary to avoid a prolonged delay.”
Indonesians quickly turned to social media asking Transportation Minister Ignasius Jonan to resolve the situation. Both Lion Air and Jonan becoming trending topics on Twitter on Thursday.
Aviation expert Gerry Soejatman said Jonan’s response has been slow compared to his actions during the Indonesia AirAsia flight, which crashed on the Java Sea last December.
“This is questionable. Is this because Lion Air’s owner is a Wantimpres [Presidential Advisory Board] member?” Gerry said, referring to Rusdi Kirana.
Gerryadded that Lion Air has violated a Transportation Ministry regulation which mandates carriers to provide compensation ranging from meals, accommodations to refund for delays and cancellation.
“Jonan must take firm action to discipline the airline,” Gerry said.
“This is a chance for Jonan to show his real performance as minister, that he can act fairly. Should he not issue punishment to Lion, public trust in him will be torn,” Gerry said.
The ministry on Friday issued a moratorium on new routes for Lion.
“New route applications for Lion Air have been temporarily suspended,” ministry official Hadi M. Djuraid told Indonesian news portal Detik.com. “Lion Air will be asked to explain and arrange a standard procedure to handle passengers during a crisis.
“We can see since the crisis started on Wednesday night that Lion Air doesn’t have a system to handle the passengers in time of crisis,” Hadi said.
Jonan has reportedly told Angkasa Pura II, the operator of Soekarno-Hatta airport, to bailout the carrier arguing that Lion Air is cash-strapped.
Angkasa Pura II director Budi Karya Sumadi confirmed the bailout request, saying that it has readied Rp 3 billion “for those looking to refund their tickets. We will cover [for Lion Air] first.”
Jonan denied that Lion Air owner Rusdi Kirana’s membership on the Presidential Advisory Board had any bearing on his handling of the situation.
Rusdi is also deputy chairman of the National Awakening Party (PKB), the second biggest caucus in President Joko Widodo’s coalition.
“If the public is still not satisfied [with the penalty against Lion Air] they can file their own civil suit,” Jonan was quoted as saying by detik.com.
Tulus Abadi, chairman of the Indonesian Consumer Protection Foundation (YLKI) said the ministry’s sanctions were not enough.
“The ministry must not only impose a moratorium [on new Lion Air routes], they must do their job and impose their own regulation,” he said. “Jonan must audit Lion Air’s performance.”
The president on Friday instructed Jonan “to put public interests first.”
Indonesia’s aviation sector is one of the fastest-growing markets in the world but despite progress on safety standards and best-practice regulations in recent years, concerns remain that the sector is poorly regulated.
This is hardly Lion Air’s first time earning the ire of thousands of stranded passengers.
On Sunday night, a Jakarta Globe editor who arrived in Jakarta on a Lion Air flight from Semarang witnessed a fist fight on the tarmac between passengers who — after waiting for more than half an hour without explanation for Lion shuttle buses to take them from their parked airplane to Terminal 3 — insisted on walking nearly a kilometer across an active apron to the terminal. Airport officials were determined to prevent the unruly crowd from doing so.
In 2013, the low-cost carrier took several of its aircraft out of service during one of the busiest holiday periods of the year because it failed to apply for a permit to import tires for its fleet. Several flights had to be delayed for 18 hours.
Lion Air’s revelation this week that it lacked cash to issue refunds contrasts sharply with its extraordinary expansion plans. It is the biggest airline in Indonesia by passenger volume and in 2013 signed the two largest contracts in commercial aviation history.
US President Barack Obama announced Lion Air’s order of 230 aircraft at a list price of more than $21 billion, while French President Francois Hollande welcomed chief executive Rusdi Kirana to Paris to sign a deal with Airbus for 234 planes.
Lion Air will, by current projections, become the largest carrier in the world by fleet size once it takes delivery of all its planes.
The carrier currently operates 107 planes. Meanwhile, the Jakarta Police said it will continue to provide security to the airport to prevent further riots.
Police have deployed 100 members of its crowd control unit, 80 from the Mobile Brigade and 300 from the local precinct.