Haiti earthquake: Small Port-au-Prince airport strained by aid demand

US Air Force specialists got the small Port-au-Prince airport running again after the Haiti earthquake, but with a backlog of cargo planes to be unloaded on the tarmac, some flights still can't get in.

Ricardo Arduengo/AP
A US Army soldier stands in front of the Toussaint L'Ouverture airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday. Planes carrying relief supplies are struggling to land at the crowded airport.

Nearly three days after the devastating Haiti earthquake, one of the largest aid efforts in the history of the Americas is ramping up.

A specialist team from the US Air Force, quickly reopened Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport airport and is now running air traffic control. But planes with food, medicine and emergency workers from nearly a dozen countries are struggling to land, since cargo can't be offloaded and cleared fast enough.

Shortly before noon Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a ground stop alert for Port-au-Prince airport. "Due to no available ramp space at the Port-au-Prince airport and with the international heavy jets inbound the Haitians are not accepting any aircraft into their airspace," the alert says. "Airborne aircraft can expect to hold in excess of one hour. Aircraft operators are also reminded that there is no available fuel at the airport."

The alert also said that the airport has an "airspace saturation issue" that is "preempting other humanitarian flights from entering Port-au-Prince airspace."

"The good news is [the airport is] now operating at 24-hour/7-day-a-week capability, but the bad news is it is a very limited airport with one runway and limited ramp space," State Department Spokesman Phillip Crowley told reporters on Thursday afternoon. "So we are trying to work to create a system where we get the planes stacked down on the ground, offload cargo, onload evacuees... and there have been occasions today where we’ve had to hold airplanes because the ramp was crowded."

Both Thursday and today, some planes have been told not to take off for the Haitian capital and others have circled for more than an hour waiting to land.

The port also took heavy damage in the earthquake, with the cranes used to offload container ships toppled. For the moment, it does not appear that large ships can dock at the port.

"... this is an indication as well that, obviously, the level of assistance is expanding," added Mr. Crowley. "We continue to look at the port and to see how we can effectively deliver not only the personnel that are doing the work of assessing the challenge, beginning the work on urban search-and-rescue. We’ve got medical personnel in the pipeline. Some will be arriving this evening from Atlanta. So yeah, this – logistics remains a challenge because of the limited infrastructure that’s available to us due to the earthquake."

Follow the Global News Blog for updates on Haiti throughout the day.

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