The Biden administration is planning a dramatic increase in airlift from Kabul by requiring major US airlines to assist with the transportation of tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees, while also increasing the number of US military bases that can house Afghans.
According to US officials, the White House is expected to consider activating the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, or CRAF, which was established in 1952 in the aftermath of the post-World War II Berlin Airlift, to provide nearly 20 commercial jets from up to five airlines to supplement US military efforts to transport Afghan evacuees from regional bases.
Officials are considering alternatives for ramping up the evacuation effort, including expanding the number of bases in the region to reduce overcrowding, which could supplement or eliminate the need for civilian airlines. Additional military bases in the United States are also being designated to house arriving Afghan evacuees.
The civilian planes would not fly into or out of Kabul, which was taken over by the Taliban on August 15, according to officials. Instead, commercial airline pilots and crews would assist in transporting the thousands of Afghans and others stranded at US bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Germany.
The involvement of commercial airliners would relieve pressure on those bases, which are quickly filling up with Afghan evacuees as the United States expands efforts to fly them out of Kabul’s airport. Thousands of Afghans who face retaliation from the Taliban as a result of their association with US forces have descended on the airport in the last week.
According to US officials, the U.S. Transportation Command, which is part of the military, has provided an initial notification to airlines that they may be told to implement the reserve fleet. Officials from the White House, the Pentagon, and the Department of Commerce said no final approvals had been issued for its use, and that alternative options could still be implemented. CRAF’s potential use has not previously been reported.
According to an industry official, carriers were notified Friday night that CRAF could potentially be activated. According to the official, airlines have also discussed voluntary efforts to support the government’s airlift efforts.
The administration is considering a limited number of aircraft for a Stage 1 implementation of the CRAF. According to officials, a Stage 2 implementation could involve up to 100 aircraft and have a significant impact on the airline industry. The union that represents flight attendants at United Airlines Holdings Inc. said in a message to members on Saturday that the airline had begun the process of allowing flight attendants to bid on flights under the CRAF program. According to union officials, pay for these flights is typically higher.
The US military has sent dozens of C-17 cargo planes to transport evacuees out of Kabul. Officials say those planes aren’t fit for the long flight across the Atlantic to US bases. Many seats have been removed to make more room for evacuees, and a typical C-17 only has two onboard restrooms.
The Defense Production Act authorizes the use of the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet, which was used during US military operations in the Middle East in 1990 and 2003. Last year, the act was used to require companies to provide some of the equipment needed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, though President Donald Trump resisted calls from some governors and lawmakers to use it more broadly.
US officials said the rarely used CRAF has been considered in recent days as a way to relieve crowding at bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Germany, which have quickly reached capacity and forced a halt to evacuation flights out of Kabul on Friday for several hours. Officials expect Dulles International Airport, located outside of Washington, D.C., to become the central processing site for an influx of Afghan evacuees.
Officials at the Pentagon are preparing at least one more US base, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, to begin accepting Afghan refugees. However, as the Kabul crisis unfolds and other countries become wary of housing large numbers of Afghan evacuees, the United States has begun to take a closer look at its own facilities in the United States and abroad, officials said.
The Pentagon had previously identified Fort Lee, Virginia, Fort Bliss, Texas, and Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, as locations where refugees would be housed.