Defense Secretary Orders Six Commercial Airlines to Help Ferry Afghan Refugees – The New York Times

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has ordered six commercial airlines to provide passenger jets to help with the growing U.S. military operation evacuating Americans and Afghan allies from Kabul, the Afghan capital, the Pentagon said on Sunday.

Mr. Austin activated Stage 1 of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, created in 1952 after the Berlin airlift, to provide 18 airliners to help ferry passengers arriving at bases in the Middle East from Afghanistan, John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.

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

The Pentagon does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights, Mr. Kirby said.

Capt. John Perkins, a spokesman for the military’s Transportation Command, said on Sunday that the commercial airliners would begin service on Monday or Tuesday and that they would fly evacuees both from the Middle East to Europe and from Europe to the United States.

Captain Perkins said in a telephone interview that the military had requested wide-bodied, long-haul aircraft capable of carrying several hundred passengers. He said that discussions started with the airlines last week and that some carriers had volunteered planes for the evacuation. But, he added, the demand was great enough for Mr. Austin to order more airlines to honor their obligations under the reserve fleet program.

Civilian planes would not fly into or out of Kabul, where a rapidly deteriorating security situation has hampered evacuation flights. Instead, commercial airline pilots and crews would help transport thousands of Afghans who are arriving at U.S. bases in Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The commercial airlines would ease the burden on those bases, which are filling up rapidly as the Biden administration rushes to increase the number of flights for thousands of Afghans fearing reprisals from Taliban fighters.

From the bases in the Middle East, the airliners would augment military flights carrying Afghans to Germany, Italy, Spain and other stops in Europe, and then ultimately to the United States for many of the Afghans, officials said.

Scott Kirby, the chief executive of United Airlines, said on social media, “As a global airline and flag carrier for our country, we embrace the responsibility to quickly respond to international challenges like this one.”

“It’s a duty we take with the utmost care and coordination,” he added.

The airline noted that four of its Boeing 777 planes, which seat as many as 350 people, had been activated.

This is just the third time that the reserve air fleet has been used. The first was during the Persian Gulf war (from August 1990 to May 1991). The second was during the Iraq war (from February 2002 to June 2003).

For the evacuation mission, one of the largest the Pentagon has ever conducted, the military has expanded beyond its fleet of C-17s, the cargo plane of choice in hostile environments, to include giant C-5s and KC-10s, a refueling plane that can be configured to carry passengers.