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A once sleepy airport is now Haiti's overstretched lifeline

A boy sucks his thumb as Master Corporal Lola Lagler, of the Canadian Forces, searches his bag before boarding a transport plane in Port-au-Prince, Monday, Jan. 18, 2010.

Lynne Sladky/Lynne Sladky/AP

A scant 28 minutes after landing, the special emergency airport operations teams from the U.S. Air Force had taken control of Haitian airspace.

They were sorting out the dangerous jumble of television news helicopters, aging propeller planes full of aid, but short of fuel, and military transports from as far away as China - all jockeying to be "first in."

That was barely 24 hours after the massive earthquake levelled much of Port-au-Prince but miraculously left the country's longest runway unscathed. That ribbon of concrete is now Haiti's overstretched lifeline.

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Since then, nearly 1,000 large aircraft have landed, unloaded and taken off again in seven days, on a single runway at an airport normally so sleepy that it usually handles three passenger jets a day.

Today, more than 180 flights - included several dozen hulking C-17s capable of carrying 100 tonnes of aid - are expected to arrive in an intricate aerial and constantly re-choreographed dance.

Despite transforming the airport into a round-the-clock base coping with tens of thousands of tonnes of food, fuel and medicines while evacuating several thousand foreign nationals and hundreds of seriously injured, howls of complaints have threatened to drown the roar of jet engines.

"This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti," said Alain Joyandet, France's Minister of Foreign Aid when a French air force plane was temporarily diverted because the airport tarmac was choc-a-bloc with transports being unloaded.

Some aid groups have accused U.S. Air Force controllers of giving priority to military flights. "We clearly had two planes diverted," said Benoît Leduc, logistics manager for Médecins Sans Frontières, adding that means doctors are lacking " the proper drugs or the equipment to perform the operations they need; it's a fact."

There's no question that the airport is the chokepoint.

The tight space and the need to unload some planes by hand means that Port-au-Prince - where only half a dozen aircraft can be squeezed onto the apron at a time - still lags far behind Kandahar air base in number of flights landing. After years of upgrades, the big NATO base in southern Afghanistan handled 5,500 flights a week last summer, making it the busiest single-runway airport in the world.

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Still, for Port-au-Prince's single runway to cope with nearly 1,000 flights in the first week after a major catastrophe underscores the huge effort.

"When we arrived there was no electricity, no communication and no support," said Colonel Buck Elton, commander of the U.S. Air Force unit running the airport. "The tower and the terminal has been condemned due to damage, so all of our operations are done in the grass between the runway and the ramp."

The U.S. Air Force units brought in air-traffic controllers, radios, lights, generators, forklifts and drivers and tugs to haul aircraft around. "When we arrived there were two tow bars at the airport," Col. Elton said.

Other extraordinary measures are in place to try and smooth the flow.

Unseen, high above Haiti's denuded mountains, U.S. Air Force fuel tankers circle. U.S. military cargo planes circle too, taking on fuel from the tankers if necessary, so they can be slotted in to the steady stream of landing aircraft if another flight is late of if the ground crews managed to unload an aircraft faster than expected.

"What we've set up here would be similar to running a major airport ... except doing it without any communication, electricity, or computers," Col. Elton said.

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A second, far shorter, runway was opened Tuesday at Jacmel on Haiti's south coast, where Canadian and U.S. military Hercules will need to make extremely difficult short landings.

"We are obviously very conscious of the need to have multiple ports of entry," U.S. Major-General Daniel Allyn said.

Every aid organization seems to believe it's flight should have priority. Some were chartering planes and landing them without any means to unload them, expecting to be able to refuel at Port-au-Prince, where there was no supply.

"People were sending planes very often without warning, particularly in the first three or four days," said John Holmes, the United Nations emergency relief co-ordinator.

It wasn't just the French who were complaining.

"There were a lot of people upset," said Mr. Holmes. "The Mexicans were upset that their flights weren't getting in as quickly. Everybody was in the same position, trying to get flights in. There's always going to be somebody who's a bit upset."

The Haitian government had asked Washington to run its airspace and control the airport. However, the agreement setting up the newly minted Haiti Flight Operations Co-ordination Center sets landing times as determined "by the Government of Haiti in consultation with the United States."

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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