U.S. News

U.S. military says Haiti airport jam easing

MIAMI (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Sunday it was doing its best to get as many planes as possible into Port-au-Prince, after NGOs complained shipments of aid had not been allowed to land at the U.S.-controlled airport.

U.S. Navy helicopters are prepped for takeoff in the early morning sunrise onboard the USS Carl Vinson as relief efforts continue off the shore of Port-au-Prince January 17, 2010. REUTERS/Hans Deryk

More than 30 countries have rushed relief to Haiti since Tuesday’s devastating earthquake, choking the airspace and the ramp at the small airfield and delaying the arrival of urgently needed medical and food supplies.

Colonel Buck Elton, commander of the U.S. military directing flights at Haiti’s airport, said there had been 600 take-offs and landings since he took over the one-runway airport’s traffic on Wednesday, though 50 flights had been diverted.

The airport’s control tower was knocked out by the quake and U.S. military air controllers were operating from a radio post on the airfield grass, he said.

“What we set up here would be similar to running a major airport ... without any communications, electricity or computers,” Elton told reporters in a telephone briefing from Port-au-Prince.

Medecins Sans Frontieres complained that a cargo plane carrying an inflatable surgical hospital was blocked from landing in Port-au-Prince on Saturday, and was rerouted to Samana, in the Dominican Republic, from where it would take 24 hours to get to the Haitian capital by truck.

“Priority must be given immediately to planes carrying lifesaving equipment and medical personnel,” MSF (Doctors Without Borders) said in a statement.

Elton said the flow of air traffic was improving, with only 3 of 67 incoming flights being rerouted on Saturday, and only two flights diverted on Sunday.

The airport apron can only handle one wide-bodied plane and five narrow-bodied planes at a time, plus other aircraft that can be parked on the grass.

“Our intent is as soon as one aircraft departs, another one arrives,” Elton said.

Additional reporting by Glenn Somerville in Washington, writing by Anthony Boadle, editing by Pascal Fletcher and Jackie Frank