US considers ordering commercial airlines to help in Afghan evacuation

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The Biden administration is planning a dramatic ramp-up of its airlift from Kabul by making preparations to compel major U.S. airlines to help with the transportation of tens of thousands of evacuees from Afghanistan, while expanding the number of U.S. military bases that could house Afghans.

The White House is expected to consider activating the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, or CRAF, created in 1952 in the wake of the post-World War II Berlin Airlift, to provide nearly 20 commercial jets from up to five airlines to augment U.S. military efforts to transport Afghan evacuees from bases in the region, according to U.S. officials.

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The civilian planes wouldn’t fly in or out of Kabul, which fell to Taliban rule Aug. 15, officials said. Instead, commercial airline pilots and crews would help to ferry the thousands of Afghans and others who are stranded at U.S. bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Germany.

The involvement of the commercial airliners would relieve the pressure on those bases, which are fast filling up with Afghan evacuees as the U.S. expands efforts to fly them out of the airport in Kabul. Thousands of Afghans at risk of retaliation from the Taliban because of their association with U.S. forces have flooded the airport in the past week.

As thousands of Afghans tried to flee the country, the Taliban moved to consolidate control while facing protests against their rule. 

The U.S. Transportation Command, part of the military, has provided an initial notification to airlines that they may be told to implement the reserve fleet, the U.S. officials said. White House, Pentagon and Commerce officials hadn’t yet issued final approvals for its use, and alternative options still could be instituted, the officials said. The possible use of CRAF hasn’t been previously reported.

Carriers were notified Friday night that CRAF could potentially be activated, according to an industry official. Airlines also have held discussions about voluntary efforts to support the government’s airlift efforts, the official said.

Pentagon officials referred queries to Transportation Command, which didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment.

In a message to members, the union that represents flight attendants at 
United Airlines Holdings Inc. said Saturday that the airline had started the process of allowing flight attendants to bid to work flights under the CRAF program. Pay is typically higher for these flights, union officials said.


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"In order for United to be prepared in the event the United States Department of Defense advises United Airlines CRAF has been activated, bidding for CRAF operations must be undertaken immediately and over a very abbreviated time period," the union wrote to members.The U.S. military has deployed dozens of C-17 cargo aircraft to fly evacuees out of Kabul. Those jets aren’t considered suitable for the long ride over the Atlantic to U.S. bases, officials said. Many have had seats removed to create more space for evacuees and a typical C-17 has only two onboard restrooms.

Some planes are carrying about 400 people, and one military jet took off with more than 600 evacuees, officials have said. Such conditions, one military official said, are untenable for longer flights.

"It’s all about increasing velocity and moving the most number of evacuees as quickly and as efficiently as possible," said the official. "We want to utilize our gray-tail [military] aircraft to take evacuees to Europe and the Middle East, then they will offload there and get aboard these wide-bodied aircraft with 300 or more seats that will more comfortably fly across the pond."

U.S. officials said the rarely used CRAF has been under consideration
in recent days as a way to relieve crowding at the bases in Qatar, Bahrain and Germany, which have quickly reached capacity and on Friday forced a pause for several hours in evacuation flights out of Kabul. President Biden on Friday said the U.S. has made progress in speeding up the pace of evacuations in recent days.

Dulles International Airport, outside of Washington, D.C., is expected to become the central processing site for a surge of Afghan evacuees, officials said.

Pentagon officials are preparing at least one more U.S. base, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, to begin to receive Afghan refugees. But as the crisis in Kabul unfolds and other nations have grown wary of housing large numbers of Afghan evacuees, the U.S. has begun taking a harder look at its own facilities in the U.S. and overseas, officials said. A tent city is being erected at the New Jersey base and medical supplies, food, water, restrooms, lighting and other equipment are being installed there now, officials said. Evacuees could be there by next week, they said.

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Other bases being studied as potential housing sites include Fort Pickett, Va., Camp Atterbury, Ind., Camp Hunter Liggett, Calif., and Fort Chaffee, Ark. Pentagon officials are also looking at American bases in Japan, Korea, Germany, Kosovo, Bahrain and Italy, officials said.

The Pentagon earlier had identified Fort Lee, Va., Fort Bliss, Texas, and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin as bases that were to begin housing refugees.

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