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US Orders Airlines to Assist in Afghanistan Evacuation

An American Boeing 777-200 in Dallas/Fort Worth. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

According to multiple sources, the U.S. Transportation Command, part of the Department of Defense, alerted the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, composed of most United States-based airlines, that it would order them to assist in the U.S. military evacuation from Afghanistan. 

On Sunday, the Secretary of Defense officially ordered the third activation in the history of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, utilizing Stage 1 of its operations. Previously, the Civil Reserve Air Fleet served in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm from August 1990 to May 1991 and Operation Iraqi Freedom from February 2002 to June 2003. The program was launched after the Berlin Airlift, which took place in the late-1940s.

Currently, 18 aircraft are scheduled to participate in the operation, including four aircraft from United Airlines; three aircraft each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Airlines and Omni Air International and two aircraft from Hawaiian Airlines. Instead of flying directly to Afghanistan, U.S-based airlines will fly from airbases — many overflowing with evacuees concerned with retaliation from the Taliban and key personnel back home — in Bahrain, Qatar and Germany. For instance, one base receiving flights was Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base, which was shut down for several hours for Afghani evacuation efforts, due to full capacity at its processing center.

Both the United States Air Force and the United States Navy are assisting in evacuation efforts for the U.S, ferrying passengers from Kabul, Afghanistan — which fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15 — to U.S. bases. Infamously, one U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster assisting in the evacuation took off from Kabul carrying 823 passengers, per a post by the U.S. Air Military Command. 

A Substantial History

First launched in 1952 for the Berlin Airlift, the mission of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet is to serve as a stopgap solution for anything from minor events to “national defense emergencies,” alleviating the workload on the military’s Boeing C-5 Galaxy or Boeing C-17 Globemaster aircraft. Twenty-four airlines and 450 aircraft are allocated to these efforts, split into short-range hops, long-range long-haul operations and domestic operations.

The Civil Reserve Air Fleet is comprised of 15 airlines for long-range long-haul operations: ABX Air, Air Transport International, American Airlines, Amerijet International, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, FedEx, Hawaiian Airlines, Kalitta Air Cargo, National Airlines, Omni Air International, Polar Air Cargo, United Airlines, United Parcel Service and Western Global.

Preparing for the possibility of Civil Air Reserve operations, United Airlines allowed its flight attendants to bid on Civil Reserve Air Fleet flights on Saturday, incentivized with higher pay. The bidding will close on Monday, per a memo by United Airlines’ Association of Flight Attendants.

The Chicago-based airline’s first evacuee flight departed on Sunday, according to data from FlightRadar24, from Frankfurt’s Hahn Airport bound for Al Udeid Air Base. The Boeing 777-300ER operating flight will continue from Al Udeid Air Base to Germany’s Ramstein Air Base with a final destination of Washington’s Dulles International Airport. Per a statement, United Airlines plans to utilize four Boeing 777-300ERs seating 350 passengers, which it can do without hampering its commercial operations.

In a statement, Delta Airlines said it plans to start Civil Reserve Air Fleet services beginning on Monday morning, with no effect on its commercial operations.

“For decades, Delta has actively played a role in supporting the U.S. Military and our troops. And we are again proud to pledge Delta people and our aircraft in support our country’s relief efforts,” Delta EVP and Chief of Operations John Laughter said in a prepared message.

Based on schedule data, the Atlanta-based airline plans to operate four flights on Monday, using an Airbus A350-900 and a Boeing 767-300 between Ramstein Air Base and Dulles in addition to two Airbus A330s from Dubai’s World Central Airport to Al Udeid Air Base and onward to Frankfurt’s Hahn Airport and Dulles.

Meanwhile, American Airlines plans to instate three aircraft starting on Monday, though it is unknown which aircraft type the carrier will operate.

“American is part of the CRAF program and is proud to fulfill its duty to help the U.S. military scale this humanitarian and diplomatic rescue mission,” the Fort Worth-based carrier said in a statement. “The images from Afghanistan are heartbreaking. The airline is proud and grateful of our pilots and flight attendants, who will be operating these trips to be a part of this life-saving effort.”

Currently, other U.S-based carriers like National Airlines, Eastern Airlines, Omni Air International and Atlas Air are voluntarily participating in the effort under the U.S. Transportation Command Callsign. For example, National Airlines operated its first evacuation effort on Saturday, from Al Udeid Air Base to Washington’s Dulles International Airport via Sofia, Bulgaria. At the time of writing, according to data from FlightRadar24, Eastern Airlines is currently operating two flights to and from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

An Eastern Airlines 767 in the new livery. (Photo: Eastern Airlines)

An International Effort

Furthermore, foreign carriers are participating in the movement, ferrying passengers to airports such as Washington’s Dulles International Airport, expected to become the central processing center for operations.

For example, Kuwait Airways has flown multiple charters to Dulles since August 16, utilizing its Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. From Al Udeid Air Base, Ethiopian Airlines has operated several charters to Washington Dulles with its Airbus A350-900 and Boeing 787-9. On Sunday, Gulf Air flew its first evacuee charter from Bahrain to Washington Dulles. Before the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban, Qatar Airways began operating charter flights to Dulles, using its Boeing 777-300ER, carrying Afghan translators to the U.S. 

In the future, New Jersey’s Joint Base Macguire-Dix-Hurst will become another airport accepting evacuees, constructing a “tent city” and preparing essential equipment such as food and water for use as soon as next week. The Pentagon had identified three bases to house refugees in the U.S.: Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Lee, Vir. and Fort McCoy, Wis.

Per a previous report by AirlineGeeks, other airlines are evacuating Afghani citizens for their respective home countries. Lufthansa plans to operate evacuee flights for Germany via Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Doha using its Airbus A340-300s. Additionally, Pakistan International Airlines flew multiple flights, utilizing widebody aircraft to evacuate Pakistani citizens.

World governments are also ferrying military aircraft to assist in the efforts to evacuate Afghanistan. For example, the French Air Force and British Air Force have flown their Airbus A400Ms into Kabul, and the Italian Air Force has flown its Boeing KC-767A transport aircraft from Kabul to Rome.

Winston Shek


  • Winston Shek

    Ever since Winston was a toddler, he has always had a fascination for airplanes. From watching widebodies land at Washington Dulles to traveling the world, Winston has always had his eyes towards the skies. Winston began aviation photography in 2018 and now posts his photos occasionally on his Instagram account. He previously wrote for a blog. In his free time, Winston loves to play chess, do recreational activities, and watch sports. Looking into the future, Winston plans to service the aviation industry.

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