Pentagon orders US airways to fly evacuees out of Afghanistan

An American airline Airbus A321-200 approaches Washington Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Arlington, Virginia on February 24, 2021.

Daniel Slim | AFP | Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered US commercial airlines to provide aircraft to expedite evacuation efforts from Afghanistan, the Pentagon said on Sunday.

The airliners would not fly to Kabul, but instead would be used to transport those who have already been flown out of the country to military bases elsewhere and allow military aircraft to focus on operations in and out of Kabul, it said.

The Ministry of Defense activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, a nearly 70-year-old program created during the Berlin Airlift to support commercial airlines in a “major national defense emergency”. It is the third time that the CRAF has been activated. It was previously used in the early 1990s and early 2000s during the Iraq wars.

Activation applies to 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 CRAF activation provides the Department of Defense with access to commercial air mobility resources to aid our State Department assistance in evacuating US citizens and personnel, special immigrant visa applicants, and other vulnerable individuals from Afghanistan,” Pentagon press secretary said John Kirby in a statement.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, announced earlier this year by President Joe Biden, has been ravaged by chaos. Thousands of people flooded Kabul airport, some falling to their deaths after holding onto the outside of a U.S. military plane in desperate attempts to leave the country after the Taliban took over the city and secured control of the country last week had.

Seven Afghan civilians were killed trying to enter Kabul airport, according to an Associated Press report.

US Defense officials say the military is looking for alternative ways to get Americans, Afghans and third-country nationals safely to the airport in Kabul after threats from the Islamic State, NBC News reported on Saturday.

“The department does not expect this activation to have a major impact on commercial flights,” said Kirby.

United Airlines said it will use four of its Boeing 777-300s on the CRAF order. The Chicago-based airline said it is still gauging the impact on its operations but that it will likely be minimal.

U.S. airlines have used some of their largest aircraft for domestic flights, with international travel demand still falling sharply due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We take on a responsibility to respond quickly to international challenges like these and to use our expertise to ensure the safe travel of our compatriots and those who risked their lives to ensure their safety,” United said in a statement.

Atlas Air, a cargo airline that flies for Amazon, has contracts for the US military.

“We are doing as much as possible to provide the much-needed capacity to support the evacuation effort,” said a spokeswoman.

U.S. airlines volunteered planes earlier this week to assist with evacuation efforts, according to people familiar with the matter. The Pentagon did not immediately comment on whether it would consider expanding the program beyond the 18 commercial aircraft.

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