Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet on Sunday, giving the Department of Defense access to the commercial air fleet to help with evacuation efforts in Afghanistan.
The news comes as tens of thousands of people — mostly Afghan nationals, but also an unknown number of American citizens — wait to be evacuated from Afghanistan.
What are the details?
Austin announced that commercial aircraft will not be used to move evacuees directly from Kabul, but rather will "be used to fly passengers out from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases."
The Pentagon explained, "The current activation is for 18 aircraft: three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines. The Department does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights from this activation."
"CRAF activated aircraft will not fly into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. They will be used for the onward movement of passengers from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases," the statement added. "Activating CRAF increases passenger movement beyond organic capability and allows military aircraft to focus on operations in and out of in Kabul."
More from the New York Times:
Capt. John Perkins, a spokesman for the military's Transportation Command, said on Sunday that the commercial airliners would begin service on Monday or Tuesday and that they would fly evacuees both from the Middle East to Europe and from Europe to the United States.
Captain Perkins said in a telephone interview that the military had requested wide-bodied, long-haul aircraft capable of carrying several hundred passengers. He said that discussions started with the airlines last week and that some carriers had volunteered planes for the evacuation. But, he added, the demand was great enough for Mr. Austin to order more airlines to honor their obligations under the reserve fleet program.
This is just the third time the Defense Department has activated the CRAF.
"The first occurred in support of Operations Desert Shield/Storm (Aug. 1990 to May 1991), and the second was for Operation Iraqi Freedom (Feb. 2002 to June 2003)," the Pentagon noted.
In a statement, American Airlines said the company is "proud" to help with the evacuation mission.
"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 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," the company said.
United CEO Scott Kirby also acknowledged a sense of pride in being called on to assist the U.S. military's operations.
"As a global airline and flag carrier for our country, we embrace the responsibility to quickly respond to international challenges like this one – it's a duty we take with the utmost care and coordination as we call upon the expertise of several different teams within our airline to work in close partnership with the U.S. military to safety execute this operation," Kirby wrote on Instagram. "We are especially thankful to our flight crews, technicians and support teams who are deploying at a moment's notice to staff these missions."