The United States has decided to use American commercial airlines to accelerate evacuation of the US officials and others from Kabul airport and the Middle East.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, asking U.S. airlines and charter carriers to transport Afghan evacuees from locations in the Middle East and Europe to other areas of the world.
Austin on Sunday called for a first stage mobilization of CRAF to perform airlift services, the Pentagon said in a statement. This stage asks for a limited amount of aircraft — three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four Boeing 777s from United Airlines, for a total of 18 planes.
“CRAF activated aircraft will not fly into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul,” Defense officials said. “They will be used for the onward movement of passengers from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases. Activating CRAF increases passenger movement beyond organic capability and allows military aircraft to focus on operations in and out of in Kabul.”
DoD said it “does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights from this activation.”
Airlines on Friday were asked to get ready in case they would be needed to ferry thousands of people who have been rescued from Kabul since the Taliban took over Aug. 15. Evacuations have continued aboard military aircraft, moving roughly 7,000 U.S. citizens and personnel, Special Immigrant Visa applicants and other at-risk individuals from Afghanistan to locations such as Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
The latest mobilization means CRAF has now been activated for the third time since it was created after World War II. The CRAF was established in 1951 as an emergency authorization to use commercial and charter planes to augment airlift and resupply missions. It was previously used during Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990, and again in 2003 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Defense Department and U.S. Transportation Command are the activating authority for CRAF. The airlines volunteer for the program, which also involves the Department of Transportation. Commercial carriers retain their civil status under Federal Aviation Administration regulations, while USTRANSCOM “exercises mission control via its air component, Air Mobility Command,” the Pentagon said.
Airlines for America, the trade group for the major U.S. airlines, on Saturday told POLITICO it has been in communication with administration officials on the matter.
“U.S. carriers have been offering support as needed over the past week, and they remain in frequent communication with U.S. government agencies and officials to determine flight support needs,” A4A said.
In a statement, United said potential impacts to its flights are “still being assessed” but expected to be minimal. “As a global airline and flag carrier for our country, we embrace the responsibility to quickly respond to international challenges like this one,” United CEO Scott Kirby said on Instagram.