Haiti’s airports are closed. For those with money and connections there is a hard way out

The whirling buzz of the rotors first appeared after sundown, seven days after a united front of ruthless armed gangs seized Haiti’s two largest prisons, freeing thousands of prisoners and forcing the temporary suspension of flights at the capital’s international and domestic airports

The helicopter flights continued for the next couple of days as staff at diplomatic missions in Port-au-Prince scrambled to get out of the gang-fueled chaos amid food shortages and looting in a city under siege.

Haiti’s air space may be closed. But not necessarily for those with connections — and deep pockets.

As the violence intensifies, foreign embassy staffers and wealthy foreigners stranded in the volatile Caribbean nation are knocking on the doors of air-travel companies in Miami and in the neighboring Dominican Republic trying to secure themselves a way out. The main destination is Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

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But the availability of seats in helicopters with pilots willing to fly into Haiti is extremely limited and very expensive, running in some cases into tens of thousands of dollars, amid the difficulties faced by chopper companies in obtaining approval for their flight plans from officials in Santo Domingo.

“We’re trying to help foreigners, particularly American citizens trying to extricate themselves, but pilots keep getting denied because of the restrictions that are coming out of the Dominican Republic,” said Steve McPartland, Miami managing director of Americas for the Emerald Solutions Group.

The Dubai-based company provides helicopter service as well as security, supplying would-be travelers with bulletproof transportation out of undisclosed locations in Haiti’s capital.

Dominican officials told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald that there is a protocol to get approval for the extraction of foreigners out of Haiti. Companies attempting to organize the operations, however, say the process is long. It requires the green light from different slow-moving Dominican governmental agencies.

Days after announcing, for example, that it was temporarily relocating some of its Port-au-Prince staff to the Dominican Republic, the United Nations still had not received approval to take its staffers out on helicopters.

“It is not yet operational, just to be clear,” Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, told reporters on Friday.

Days earlier, as the violence erupted, several European missions successfully evacuated nine people, including the German ambassador, on a mission that was supposed to be hush-hush but ended up being leaked, causing a day’s delay. After word got out about the flights, those involved called it off out of security concerns, sources said.

The United States also evacuated its non-essential staff at its embassy in Tabarre, where gangs looted several businesses and took over a car dealership where the Jamaica consulate is housed. Instead of charters, however, the U.S. military flew into Haiti in the dead of night for the extraction mission that also left behind Marines to secure the embassy.

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The helicopter flights coincided with an uneasy calm over the capital, where armed groups had targeted the airport in anticipation of the return of outgoing Prime Minister Ariel Henry. Henry was on a visit to Kenya, finalizing a bilateral agreement with the government to send 1,000 of its police officers to Haiti as part of an international mission the East African nation has offered to lead, when the violence hit a peak on March 2. Using a drone, armed groups attacked the country’s largest prison and released thousands of inmates, including several notorious gang leaders, then breached a second prison in Croix-des-Bouquets, not far from the U.S. embassy.

Locked out of the country, Henry had hoped to charter a helicopter to get back into the country. But he was later forced to land in Puerto Rico after the Dominican Republic refused to allow his charter plane to land in Santo Domingo.

Several days later, helicopter pilots started their risky extraction flights, which two sources told the Herald can cost as much as $80,000 per seat. Given that evacuations are carried out under hazardous conditions, aviation companies are demanding hefty prices. The Dominican pilot said a charter helicopter flight can run between $10,000 to $15,000, but that there might be additional costs given the violence and the difficulty of refueling in Haiti.

The flights appear to have become less frequent over the past few days even though demand is growing. Major airlines have not yet said when they will resume flying and on Thursday gangs once more targeted the area near the airport with heavy gunfire. An hour later they set fire to the private residence of the country’s police chief, triggering panic in Port-au-Prince. The teeming capital is surrounded by armed groups that control all of the major roads in and out of the capital, leaving no other option out but to helicopter out.

Various aviation companies trying to organize flights out of the Dominican Republic said they have not been able to get the necessary authorizations.

“There are no flights right now,” said a Dominican helicopter pilot, whose company had previously helped evacuate the diplomatic mission of a European country. “We have been contacted by many people but we have not been able to help them.”

Foreign journalists attempting to get into Haiti face the opposite problem. A number of foreign broadcast networks have been reaching out to helicopter companies but are finding themselves unable to leave the Dominican Republic.

McPartland of Emerald Solutions said his company provides all-around protection to guarantee the safety of its passengers, from the point of pickup to the secure place they would be taken in the Dominican Republic. The cost of each extraction would depend on its individual condition and the size of the team required, but that it can run into many thousands of dollars.

The most high-profile evacuation to date involved bestselling author Mitch Albom. The author of the blockbuster book “Tuesdays With Morrie,” Albom was visiting an orphanage he established in Haiti when the gangs broke into the prisons.

In an interview with NBC News, Albom said he and his wife had to flee in the dead of night on a helicopter with nine others.

“The country fell into great turmoil,” Albom said. “The airports were closed. The ports were taken over. The borders were closed. The streets were blocked.”

And yet, foreigners are in a much better position than the country’s citizens caught in the wave of violence, said McPartland.

“The foreigners there are desperate to get out, but my personal opinion is that, you know, we’ll get them all out of there. And we can keep them safe inside a shelter for the time being,” he said. “But the Hatians, those are the ones that are really desperate because they have no way out of a horrible situation.”