US Orders Airliners Into Afghan Service

Pentagon invokes rarely used emergency program to take over planes
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 22, 2021 10:05 AM CDT
US Airliners to Help With Evacuations
People evacuated from Afghanistan disembark from a Ukrainian military plane at Boryspil International Airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, on Sunday.   (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

The Defense Department on Sunday ordered US airlines to contribute planes for use in evacuating Afghan refugees. The 18 aircraft will transport evacuees to and from military bases in Germany, Qatar and Bahrain, the Wall Street Journal reports. They will not go into Kabul. So far, C-17 cargo planes have been used to take civilians out of the Kabul airport, where tens of thousands of people have tried to get through security to board flights. Those planes aren't designed for passengers and don't work well for long trips such as the ones to bases in the US; they don't carry food, or have enough restrooms— or even seats. In some cases, more than 400 people have packed together on the floors of the C-17.

Although the airlines were given an order, not a request, United supported the move. "We embrace the responsibility to quickly respond to international challenges like these," the airline said in a statement, per CNBC. Four planes will be turned over by United; three each by American, Atlas Air, Delta, and Omni Air; and two by Hawaiian Airlines, per the Washington Post. The Pentagon's authority for the order comes from the Defense Production Act, which created the Civil Reserve Air Fleet in the 1950s after the Berlin airlift. It provides for ordering commercial carriers to contribute planes as a backup during a "major national defense emergency." The Pentagon previously activated the program in 1990 and 2002.

The flights, which the Pentagon said will ferry passengers "from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases," will be operated by the military's Transportation Command, but still will be considered civilian and will be subject to FAA rules. The Pentagon did not say whether it would go beyond 18 planes, but part of the idea of using commercial airliners is to be able to use places other than military bases for the flights, per the Journal. On ABC's This Week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Sunday that troops are working to get Americans safely to the Kabul airport and onto planes, per the Guardian. "We’re gonna try our very best to get everybody, every American citizen who wants to get out, out." (Read more Afghanistan exit strategy stories.)

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