President Biden has activated a nearly 70-year-old emergency program to order U.S. airlines to help out in the evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees. Airlines were put on notice that the Civil Reserve Air Fleet or CRAF would be activated with 18 commercial jets from six major airlines used to help in the mass evacuation effort.
The airlines were briefed on Friday although the final decision was only announced on Sunday. The airlines won’t be expected to fly into Afghanistan but willbe deployed to safe countries in the region, like Qatar and Bahrain, which are home to U.S. military bases where refugees have been temporarily transported to.
Evacuation flights out of Kabul had to be stopped for six hours on Friday because of a backup of refugees at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Other air bases, including in Germany, are to be used for the operation but getting refugees out of transit is key.
The CRAF program was created in 1952 following learning from the Berlin airlift. It was created to help in the event of a “major national defense emergency” where the U.S. military needs to tap into additional flight capacity at short notice.
This is only the third time in the program’s history that it has been activated. American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni will each provide three aircraft for the deployment.
Two aircraft will be supplied by Hawaiian and United Airlines will offer four of its aircraft to assist in the airlift.
In a statement, United Airlines said it was “proud to partner with the Department of Defense and support the humanitarian mission to fly American citizens and Afghan refugees.” A spokesperson said the airline would be in contact with passengers whose trips might be affected by the DoD requisitioning its planes.
“The Department (of Defense) does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights from this activation,” a statement noted on Sunday.
“Working with military and industry leaders, U.S. Transportation Command is supporting efforts to transport U.S. citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and other at-risk individuals from Afghanistan,” a spokesperson for the Defense Department explained.
At least two major airlines had already volunteered to supply aircraft and crew to assist in the operation before the CRAF was activated.
In return for helping out the military, the commercial airlines could win lucrative contracts in the future for transporting military personnel and cargo.
Since August 14, the U.S. military has evacuated around 17,000 people out of Kabul and military bases in the United States are being put on standby to house some refugees.
But it’s not known how long the evacuation effort can safely continue with thousands of people thronging the airport and creating a security and safety nightmare. The U.S. has warned its citizens not to go to Kabul airport unless specifically told to do so because of the potential of an attack.
The CRAF was last activated between February 2002 and June 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
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Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.