Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered U.S. commercial airlines to provide planes to help speed up Afghanistan evacuation efforts, the Pentagon said Sunday.
The planes would not fly into Kabul but instead would be used to transport those who have already been flown out of the country to military bases in Europe and the Middle East. That would allow military aircraft to focus on operations in and out of the Afghan capital, the Pentagon said.
The Defense Department activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, a nearly 70-year-old program created in the wake of the Berlin airlift to provide a backup by commercial air carriers for a “major national defense emergency.” It is the third time the CRAF has been activated. Previously it was used in the early 1990s and early 2000s during the Iraq wars.
United Airlines’ first flight under CRAF took off Sunday from Frankfurt-Hahn Airport to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
“CRAF activation provides the Department of Defense access to commercial air mobility resources to augment our support to the Department of State in the evacuation of U.S. citizens and personnel, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and other at-risk individuals from Afghanistan,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday spoke with Bahraini Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani and “expressed gratitude to Bahrain for the government’s humanitarian support in facilitating the safe transit of U.S. citizens and evacuees from Afghanistan,” the State Department said.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was announced by President Joe Biden earlier this year, has been beset by chaos. Thousands of people swarmed the Kabul airport, some plunging to their deaths after clinging to the exterior of a U.S. military aircraft in desperate attempts to leave the country after the Taliban took over the city last week, sealing control of the country.
Seven Afghan civilians were killed in crowds trying to enter Kabul’s airport, the British military said, according to an Associated Press report.
U.S. defense officials say that the military is looking for alternative ways to get Americans, Afghans and third-country nationals safely to the airport in Kabul following threats from the Islamic State, NBC News reported Saturday.
“The Department does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights from this activation,” Kirby said.
United Airlines said it will use four of its Boeing 777-300 planes, which seat 350 passengers, for the CRAF order. The Chicago-based airline said it is still assessing the impact to its operation but that it will likely be minimal.
United’s flight attendant bidding for CRAF flights began on Saturday, according to a note from their union. Crews receive extra pay for those flights.
U.S. carriers have deployed some of their largest planes for domestic flights with international travel demand still down sharply because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We embrace the responsibility to quickly respond to international challenges like these and use our expertise to ensure the safe passage of our fellow countrymen and women as well as those who have risked their lives to help keep them safe,” United said in a statement.
Delta said it will have “multiple relief flights arriving back in the United States beginning Monday morning.” The carrier said it is using spare aircraft and that commercial flights are not currently affected.
American Airlines said it will be ready to deploy three wide-body planes for CRAF starting Monday.
“American will work to minimize the impact to customers as the airline temporarily removes these aircraft from our operation,” it said in a statement. “The airline appreciates customers’ patience and understanding as it works to accommodate flights.”
Atlas Air, a cargo carrier and one of the airlines that flies for Amazon‘s air arm, regularly supplies airlift to the U.S. military. The company’s passenger fleet includes Boeing 747-400s with 374 passenger seats, and 767-300s with 215 passenger seats, according to its website.
“We are doing as much as possible to provide the much-needed capacity to support the evacuation efforts,” an Atlas spokeswoman said.
U.S. airlines earlier this week volunteered aircraft to help in the evacuation efforts, according to people familiar with the matter. The Pentagon did not immediately comment on whether it is considering expanding the program beyond the 18 commercial aircraft.
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