Latin America

Air Traffic Over Haiti Is Crowded, Chaotic

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A U.S. Air Force plane lands in Haiti. i

A U.S. Air Force plane lands in Haiti to deliver supplies for earthquake victims. The country's devastated transportation system is hampering relief efforts. Subrata De/NBC Universal Inc. hide caption

toggle caption Subrata De/NBC Universal Inc.
A U.S. Air Force plane lands in Haiti.

A U.S. Air Force plane lands in Haiti to deliver supplies for earthquake victims. The country's devastated transportation system is hampering relief efforts.

Subrata De/NBC Universal Inc.

The poor condition of Haiti's transportation system — roads blocked with debris, a badly damaged seaport and overwhelmed airport — is hampering the relief effort to earthquake-devastated areas.

The airport in Port-au-Prince, which is open only to emergency flights, was so crowded Thursday that some planes had nowhere to land.

The Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in the nation's capital is one of Haiti's few remaining lifelines to the rest of the world.

Since Wednesday, it has been struggling to accommodate planes filled with supplies, relief workers and volunteers under the most primitive conditions. There's no electricity, the air traffic control system is down, and pilots who've been using the airport say damage there is severe.

A Close Call At Port-Au-Prince Airport

NPR's Joanne Silberner had a harrowing experience Thursday night when her plane approached the crowded Port-au-Prince airport. She described the situation on Friday's Morning Edition from Providenciales, part of the Turks and Caicos island chain:

"Last night, on the approach to the airport, there were too many planes coming in. We got caught in the backwash of another plane. The engine stalled. The pilot managed to pull us out of it. We headed up and away, then we had some problems with cabin pressure and not a whole lot of fuel to keep on trying these attempts, so we came here [to Providenciales]," she said.

Silberner was traveling with disaster medical assistance teams that will set up and run several hospitals.

"I have to tell you, this near-miss did not faze this group. They're looking forward to getting up and going. They're very anxious to get there," she said.

"It's beyond anything I've ever seen," said Ric Hallquist, a pilot for Missionary Flights International, a Christian relief organization based in Florida. For the past few days, he has been flying DC-3 airplanes into Port-au-Prince, shuttling in volunteers and supplies to an airport that's barely usable.

"The tower is still standing structurally," said Hallquist. "Besides that, the airport terminal building is pretty compromised. There's lot of cracks in the walls; there's people working inside, but they're pretty much trying to limit their exposure inside the building."

Meanwhile, so many aircraft were trying to get into Haiti with aid supplies Thursday that the single-runway airport was overwhelmed. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration halted most flights from the U.S. into Port-au-Prince.

Throughout the day, military and civilian aircraft were packed side by side on the tarmac, as crews unloaded tons of supplies. Other planes were parked in the grass, and at one point about a dozen more circled overhead because there was no place to put them if they landed.

Barry Ellis, who runs Hop-A-Jet charter service, has been flying doctors in from Miami. He said the situation was chaotic and sometimes exasperating.

"Everybody that's trying to go in there, rightfully so, believes that they should have priority," Ellis said. "Some airplanes have blood onboard; they have doctors onboard. So, it's initially very frustrating ... and, therefore, creates a hectic situation trying to get in there."

U.S. authorities scrambled Thursday to try to get conditions a bit more under control. The U.S. Air Force established a temporary air traffic control center. The FAA is sending a team of airport safety experts to Port-au-Prince, but even they were having a hard time getting a flight. Rajiv Shah, who is coordinating the U.S. government's relief efforts, said restoring normal airport operations is a high priority.

"We're maximizing our ability to get planes in there, to unload them, and to move them forward. There are going to be times when things do get jammed up there, but we're moving them as fast as we possibly can," Shah said.

Commercial airlines that serve Haiti — American, Delta Air, Spirit, and others — have suspended all their flights. Though some are flying aid workers into the country, no one is speculating when the airport might be in good enough shape for regular passenger service to resume.

Meanwhile, there are few other options to get people and supplies in and out of the country. The seaport in Port-au-Prince is badly damaged, highways are strewn with debris, and there's a shortage of fuel.



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