Chaos at Port-au-Prince airport slows Haiti emergency aid efforts

By Mary Beth Sheridan and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010; 7:29 PM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Despite urgent needs following Tuesday's earthquake, emergency aid for Haiti is being slowed by chaos at the Port-au-Prince airport, where planes are clogging all available space, unloading equipment is scarce and fuel for departing aircraft is unavailable, officials said Friday.

After suspending U.S. flights to Haiti for several hours Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration declared another "ground stop" Friday at the Port-au-Prince airport for all civilian and military planes departing from the United States without exception, citing "airport saturation." Humanitarian flights may be exempted from the ban if they reach out to the FAA before leaving the United States, the agency said.

Otherwise, Haitian authorities "are not accepting any aircraft into their airspace" for the time being, the FAA said. There was "no available ramp space" and that planes trying to land could expect to remain in holding patterns for more than an hour, it added.

"Aircraft operators are also reminded that there is no available fuel at the airport," the FAA said in a bulletin.

The agency later announced that, at the request of the International Civil Aviation Organization and neighboring countries, the U.S. government has temporarily taken over management of air traffic flow into the Port-au-Prince airport. Incoming planes are now required to obtain arrival slot times from a U.S.-manned "Haiti Flight Operations Coordination Center," the FAA said.

"The airport is actually overwhelmed by aid," said Hans van de Vens, a Dutch search-and-rescue official. He was hoping to meet a Dutch team that had been denied permission to land at the congested facility the day before.

Aid and military officials said the situation at the airport has improved since Thursday, when private planes would arrive virtually unannounced and running low on fuel. They had to be allowed to land because of the risk they would crash, but other planes were waved off, said Air Force Master Sgt. Ty Foster.

"The air flow is a lot better. We have good communications now," he said.

U.S. Air Force Special Forces were assisting with air-traffic control, and a U.S. military Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane flew overhead to help coordinate the multitude of jets heading for Haiti.

About a dozen planes at a time were on the tarmac on Friday, including jets from the U.S., Mexican, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan militaries and the Israeli government. Aid teams from Russia, Colombia, the Netherlands, Britain and other countries milled around pallets with generators, rescue equipment, medication and food.

But with the small airport able to handle only a limited number of planes, critical equipment was slow to arrive.

"We're frustrated. Obviously we feel we could do a lot on the ground," said Al Perez of the Miami-Dade Fire Department as he waited for a planeload of equipment for his team, which arrived Thursday. They received half their equipment then, but a plane with the rest still had not arrived by early afternoon Friday.

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