Politics

Pentagon orders U.S. airlines to help fly Afghanistan evacuees

Key Points
  • The Pentagon activated a little-used program to compel airlines to provide aircraft to help fly Afghanistan evacuees.
  • The order is for 18 aircraft: three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines.
  • The commercial 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.
Boeing 777, American Airlines.
Massimo Insabato | Mondadori Portfolio | Getty Images

The Pentagon has ordered U.S. commercial airlines to provide planes to help speed up Afghanistan evacuation efforts, it 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 or transit points 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.

VIDEO2:2902:29
Deadly firefight erupts at Kabul airport amid Afghanistan evacuation chaos

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.

The activation is for 18 aircraft: three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines.

President Joe Biden said in a press conference on Sunday afternoon that the U.S. will conduct "thorough security screening" of non-U.S. citizens or permanent residents who are flown to transit centers or bases before they fly on to the United States.

United Airlines' first flight under CRAF flew Sunday from Frankfurt-Hahn Airport to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. It will likely then fly with evacuees to the U.S. after a refueling stop in Germany, but schedules could change. The airline is exploring options to stock some of its planes with diapers, personal hygiene items and clothing.

"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.

VIDEO2:0102:01
Afghan refugees arrive in the U.S.

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 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.

"The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started, when we began," Biden said Sunday. In a 24-hour period over the weekend, the U.S. evacuated roughly 8,000 people. The planes are not flying directly from Kabul to the United States.

"We see no reason why this tempo cannot be kept up," he said. About 28,000 people have been evacuated from the country since Aug. 14.

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. The carrier on Sunday was positioning planes in Germany, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

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.

Southwest Airlines, which flies Boeing 737s, on Sunday told crews it was seeking to staff Defense Department domestic charters "to support the humanitarian airlift mission for people arriving from Afghanistan." The flights are not part of the CRAF order.

Southwest said it would use spare airplanes and that it doesn't expect operational disruptions. It said it plans to fly four flights on Monday and the same number Tuesday and Wednesday. At least two flights were scheduled for Monday to Biggs Army Airfield in El Paso, Texas from Washington D.C.

VIDEO2:0702:07
I don't know if I'll ever be back, says woman forced to leave Afghanistan