Issue 53 - Article 14

Military and humanitarian cooperation in air operations in Haiti

March 21, 2012
Michael C. Whiting (Sourced from team research edited and compiled by Whiting)
Aircraft on the ramp near the mobile air traffic control tower at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, Port au Prince, 24 January 2010

The earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 was the most destructive ever to hit the island. Over 215,000 people were killed and more than 1.3 million displaced from their homes. With the destruction of the seaport, the immediate focus of the international aid response was the Toussaint Louverture International Airport (MTPP) in the centre of the capital, Port au Prince. The world responded immediately with a massive airlift. US Air Force Special Tactics Team members from the 1st Special Operations Wing re-established tower control services a mere 18 minutes after arriving at the airport, and immediately began receiving humanitarian aircraft. Working from a table-top next to the runway the airmen accommodated an average of 50 aircraft a day – an incredible feat considering that the controllers had to sequence aircraft in and out of one small cul-de-sac style parking ramp littered with small aircraft and debris. With no single authority managing air traffic flow from the high-level jet routes into MTPP, the airspace above the airport became a complex of holding patterns, frequent diversions and frustrated aid donors. Aircraft arriving over Port au Prince from all over the globe were unable to deliver their desperately-needed medical supplies, water and food.

Operation Unified Response

On 15 January 2010, the Haitian government signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) with the US allowing the Department of Defense to control airflow into MTPP. Immediately, the 1st Air Force activated the 601st Regional Air Movement Control Centre (RAMCC), and a slot coordination programme was established. In this context, a ‘slot time’ is a specific reserved time on the parking ramp at MTPP. A system of one-, two- and four-hour time blocks was created, which  enabled the deconfliction and metering of airflow into the airfield. Concurrently, a Joint Task Force Port Opening (JTF-PO) team deployed to receive and unload aircraft at MTPP. At 06:01 GMT on 16 January 2010, the RAMCC, renamed the Haiti Flight Operations Coordination Centre (HFOCC), officially took over control of the airflow into and out of MTPP.

The challenges were many: being internationally employed on a sovereign nation’s airfield; covering a broader scope beyond the normal Federal Aviation Authority and Homeland Defense agencies, to include the Haitian government, other nations, the United Nations, NGOs, INGOs, Congressional offices, the Department of State and donor governments, to name just a few; limited ramp space: the main ramp was small and could only accommodate ten narrow-body aircraft at one time with adjustments required for wide-bodied aircraft; and political sensitivities in determining what priority or order of precedence would be given to aircraft, while not affecting the critical flow of relief into Haiti. The MoA gave the RAMCC 72 hours in which to prove its capability, and the Haitian government retained the right to terminate the MoA at any time if it felt the airflow was being improperly managed.

The US did not have the authority to deny any country access to Haiti’s airspace, so no slot allocation requests were ever denied. The situation was further complicated by the fact that several commercial chartered aircraft failed to complete the electronic Flight Plan Box 18 correctly highlighting that they were a humanitarian flight. The slot allocation process attracted the attention of the media and the US government. One flight from Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) was reported by the media as not being allowed to land. In fact, the operators of the aircraft chartered by MSF had failed to comply with the Notice to Airmen (NOTAM), which stipulated the need for a slot time at MTPP. The media failed to correct the mistaken impression they had created on this issue.

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During the second week of the crisis, at the request of the USAF, the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) deployed three aviation management personnel to provide guidance on the humanitarian element of the operation – the author was one of those individuals. The role involved apportioning slots and ensuring that the priorities of humanitarian need established by the leadership in Haiti were met. As apolitical arbiters, the UNHAS representatives were able to negotiate and reconcile ‘priority conflicts’ between non-US agencies. The presence of non-military personnel in the HFOCC gave the  organisation more international legitimacy, and helped counter press  criticism directed at the US Air Force.

There was a danger, as the operation unfolded, that the slot allocation process would become over-managed. When demand for slots exceeds availability, strict control is essential. However, a high proportion of no-show aircraft (those failing to arrive and take their allotted slot at MTTP) and the slowing pace of humanitarian relief as the operation progressed meant that on occasions the ramp at MTTP was empty. As the operation matured, negative trends were identified and corrected by the UNHAS representatives, including wasted slots, where carriers would procure slot times without a consignee or mission requirement, and subsequently leave the slot time unused. The UNHAS representatives were able to provide feedback to the carriers as third-party arbiters, and reclaimed a large number of unused slots without any political repercussions. It may have been prudent to build in a degree of queuing by holding aircraft in circuit for a short time before either allowing them to take empty slots or diverting them to San Domingo in the Dominican Republic, thus minimising the number of empty slots.

As the operation unfolded, the Royal Canadian Air Force used Kingston airfield in neighbouring Jamaica as a decoupling bridge: a location where the ‘push’ response of generous donors can be converted into the ‘pull’ demand of the humanitarian actors at the scene of the disaster without causing a bottleneck near the end of the supply chain. This limits congestion and reduces the impact of unsolicited and inappropriate aid on an already overloaded supply chain.

Like other humanitarian disasters, decision-makers at all levels requested feedback and metrics to gauge the progress of the humanitarian relief effort. When leaders did not receive the information requested, they frequently changed the data or metric in an honest effort to get feedback on the operation. In-transit visibility of cargo arriving at Port au Prince was virtually non-existent as carriers loaded whatever food, water, medicine and relief supplies they could fit onto each aircraft bound for Haiti. Data collection is difficult during any humanitarian crisis, but evolving and changing metrics in the middle of an operation can slow down the decision-making process. Below is the final list of metrics collected by HFOCC and JTF-PO personnel at MTPP. These are recommended as a benchmark for future crises, as they provide realistic and useful data. This information was recorded during the initial request for a slot time, and updated as real-time data allowed.

  • Flight purpose: relief delivery (food, water, shelter, medical supplies, logistics), diplomatic, search and rescue, security, reconstruction, aeromedical evacuation, evacuation/relocation, relief effort sustainment, movement of human remains, salvage, mail/courier, relocation/evacuation, other
  • Aircraft type
  • Call sign
  • Registration/tail number
  • Carrier country
  • Carrier affiliation: civil, military, government, private, other
  • Consignee name and contact information
  • Requestor name and contact information
  • 24-hour operations centre phone number (in case of slot time changes)
  • Cargo weight in tons
  • Cargo configuration: palletised, rolling stock, loose
  • Number of passengers
  • GDSS mission number if applicable (USAF transport aircraft only
  • Comments
  • Status of aircraft (not recorded on slot request sheet, but catalogued in Excel or SharePoint): assigned, confirmed, inbound, on-ground, complete, cancel >24, cancel <24, no-show, accommodated, diverted, unverified, delayed on ground, cancelled by RAMCC, refused

The HFOCC coordinated with the Federal Aviation Administration and set up a Traffic Flight Management System Display that provided a real-time picture of air traffic inbound to Port au Prince. Using this tool, HFOCC operations personnel were able to track and query aircraft inbound to MTPP to check slot time numbers, timeliness, update cargo loads and accommodate unscheduled aircraft. The ‘status of aircraft’ metric listed above was updated by operations personnel as they tracked aircraft across the screen towards MTPP.

whiting box 1The success of the RAMCC’s application to disaster response and humanitarian aid was recognised by the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force with the 2010 Chief of Staff of the Air Force Team Excellence Award. Seventy-three teams from the USAF competed for the award, which recognises creative ways to improve mission capability and operational performance. HFOCC members also received the 2010 Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s ‘Best Practice’ Award acknowledging the critical procedural and process improvements initiated for the Haiti crisis.


The key is for both military and humanitarian actors to engage in a more meaningful and focused way. There needs to be a paradigm shift in doctrine and policy to enable the considered and appropriate use of foreign military aviation and associated logistics assets during the response phase of sudden-onset emergencies. Doctrine and policy must be clear and unambiguous and leave no room for misinterpretation, so that, in an emergency situation, there are clear and unequivocal standard operational procedures to follow. Current guidelines are too woolly and open to individual interpretation.

Current planning in both the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance and the UK’s Department for International Development is understood to be predicated on the ability to respond simultaneously to three sudden-onset emergencies. Prudent resource management would argue that all available options should be explored to ensure a predictable, consistent and appropriate response to the needs of those affected by these emergencies.

The current policy is enshrined in the Oslo Guidelines Revision 1.1, dated November 2007. The definitions of ‘Indirect Assistance’ and ‘Last Resort’ are currently open to individual interpretation and are ambiguous. This lack of clarity has probably resulted in lost opportunities in the Pakistan flood response and in the repatriation of thirdcountry nationals fleeing the fighting in Libya in 2011. Joint planning and training with providers listed in the OCHA Register of Military, Civil Defence and Civil Protection Assets (the MCDA Register) will further improve and reinforce the predictability and consistency of responses to emergencies. See  Operation Unified Response also highlighted the need to examine, at the start of a disaster response, the prospect of setting up a practical decoupling bridge – an airfield removed from but close to the area of the disaster.

Humanitarian assistance is and must remain a predominantly civilian function; however, foreign military assets can play a valuable and vital role in natural disaster relief. There is a clear need for joint military and humanitarian planning,  scenario building and training at all levels to promote greater mutual understanding and build trust. The more we understand one another the better the result for all stakeholders and particularly the beneficiaries. USAID and the US military have started to invest in joint training with the Joint Humanitarian Operational Course (JHOC), which has been well received. In the UK the NGO–Military Contact Group (NMCG) aims to improve and strengthen communication between non-governmental aid organisations and the British armed forces and relevant UK government departments. The NMCG facilitates information sharing, learning and dialogue on policy, technical and operational issues concerning civil–military relations in humanitarian response. The NMCG Conference in 2011 on the theme ‘Civil–Military Relations in Natural Disasters: New Developments from the Field’ indicated the diversity of views, the range of issues raised by the involvement of the military in disaster response and the amount of work that still needs to be done in civil–military coordination by both military and humanitarian actors. See

It is hoped that, when applied, these lessons will provide the framework and guidelines necessary to rapidly reestablish civil–military aviation operations in a constrained environment where close coordination is necessary to ensure that both civilian and military flights are properly prioritised, synchronised and executed in order to meet disaster response requirements in a timely and effective manner.

Michael Whiting is a Visiting Lecturer in Humanitarian Logistics at Cranfield University.


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