Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has ordered six commercial airlines to provide passenger jets to help with the growing U.S. military operation evacuating Americans and Afghan allies from Kabul, the Afghan capital, the Pentagon said on Sunday.
Mr. Austin activated Stage 1 of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, created in 1952 after the Berlin airlift, to provide 18 airliners to help ferry passengers arriving at bases in the Middle East from Afghanistan, John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
The current activation is for 18 planes: three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines.
The Pentagon does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights, Mr. Kirby said.
Civilian planes would not fly into or out of Kabul, where a rapidly deteriorating security situation has hampered evacuation flights. Instead, commercial airline pilots and crews would help transport thousands of Afghans who are arriving at U.S. bases in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
The commercial airlines would ease the burden on those bases, which are filling up rapidly as the Biden administration rushes to increase the number of flights for thousands of Afghans fearing reprisals from Taliban fighters.
From the bases in the Middle East, the airliners would augment military flights carrying Afghans to Germany, Spain, Italy and other stops in Europe, and then ultimately to the United States for many of the Afghans, officials said.
This is just the third time that the reserve air fleet has been activated. The first was during the Persian Gulf war (from August 1990 to May 1991). The second time was during the Iraq war (from February 2002 to June 2003).
The military’s Transportation Command issued a warning order to major airlines on Friday night that some of their fleets might be needed for the evacuation effort, according to Capt. John Perkins, a command spokesman.
For the evacuation mission, one of the largest the Pentagon has ever conducted, the military has expanded beyond its fleet of C-17s, the cargo plane of choice in hostile environments, to include giant C-5s and KC-10s, a refueling plane that can be configured to carry passengers.