U.N.: Aid flights get top priority at Haiti airport

  • Mon Jan 18th, 2010 9:24am
  • News

By Nicole Winfield Associated Press

ROME — The U.N. food agency reached an agreement today with the U.S.-run airport in the Haitian capital to give humantarian aid flights priority in landing — a deal that came after the U.S. military was criticized for giving top billing to military and rescue aircraft.

An air slot system, similar to one used during the Indonesian tsunami emergency and the Pakistan earthquake, has been established to make sure that planes carrying food and medicine get priority in landing, World Food Program executive director Josette Sheeran told reporters.

“Even though the slots are limited and the need is great, we now have the coordination mechanism to prioritize the humanitarian flights coming in,” Sheeran said.

Over the weekend, the aid group Doctors Without Borders complained of skewed priorities and a supply bottleneck at the U.S.-controlled airport in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince amid reports that U.S. military flights were getting priority.

French, Brazilian and other officials complained about the airport’s refusal to let their aid planes land, forcing many flights to end up in the neighboring Dominican Republic, a day’s drive away.

The United States has taken over Port-au-Prince airspace and incoming flights have to register with Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

Haitians have complained that food, medicine and water have been woefully slow in reaching them. Sheeran said the WFP is on track compared to previous natural disasters in terms of aid distribution and said the aid pipeline was improving “hour by hour.”

The U.N. has estimated that 3 million Haitians — one-third of the country’s population — were affected by the quake and 2 million require food assistance. WFP reported that 67,000 people in Haiti received food Sunday and 97,000 were expected to get ready-to-eat meals today.

Sheeran said the agency had 16 million ready-to-eat meals in the pipeline, as well as 4.2 million supplementary meals for children, but appealed for government donations for more, saying WFP would need more than 100 million prepared meals over the next 30 days.

In addition, Sheeran said the U.N. food agency was clearing and setting up five separate humanitarian cooridors to bring food into Port-au-Prince via land and other means since the airport has such limited capacity.

She said the key priorities over the coming days were to clear roads, ensure security at the U.N.’s food distribution hubs, get Port-au-Prince’s port working again, and bring in heavy equipment like helicopters and trucks.

To that end, a newly commissioned Italian aircraft carrier, carrying advanced medical facilities, six helicopters, engineers, doctors, construction vehicles and other personnel, will leave for Haiti on Tuesday, authorities in Rome said. The Cavour will stop in Brazil to take on additional medical personnel.