***Update on 08/22/2021 @ 16:37 UTC – Added statements from Delta and American***
The Department of Defense (DOD) officially announced on Sunday morning that it would activate Stage I of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). Marshaling 18 civil aircraft to support the evacuation from Afghanistan, the DOD will utilize the extra air capacity provided by civil jets to relieve pressure from bases that are housing evacuees from Afghanistan and free up military aircraft to focus on the evacuation out of Kabul.
DOD activates CRAF
The current activation for the evacuation from Afghanistan is for 18 civilian aircraft. This includes three aircraft each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, and Omni Air. Four aircraft will come from United Airlines, and two will come from Hawaiian Airlines. The DOD does not anticipate that this activation will have a major impact on commercial flights.
The CRAF fleet will not be flying into Afghanistan or Kabul’s airport. Instead, the jets will fly passengers from temporary safe havens at US bases abroad to interim staging bases. Allowing the civilian aircraft to conduct this operation allows more military aircraft to focus on the evacuation out of Kabul.
Under the program, commercial jets retain their Civil Status under FAA regulations. However, USTRANSCOM exercises mission control via the Air Mobility Command to support the DOD mission.
The DOD needs these aircraft to evacuate US citizens and personnel, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and other at-risk individuals, mainly including US personnel on the ground in Afghanistan and allies in the country who supported US efforts. Military evacuations from Afghanistan continue.
United Airlines offered the following comment on the CRAF activation involving four of its Boeing 777-300ERs, and it is evaluating the ongoing impact to its commercial operations:
“United is proud to partner with the Department of Defense and support the humanitarian mission to fly American citizens and Afghan evacuees. As a global airline and flag carrier for our country, we embrace the responsibility to quickly respond to international challenges like these and use our expertise to ensure the safe passage of our fellow countrymen and women as well as those who have risked their lives to help keep them safe. These flights are another way we work to deliver on our mission of connecting people and uniting the world.”
Delta plans to use spare available aircraft, meaning there will be no impact on any of Delta’s commercial operations. Delta Air Lines EVP and Chief of Operations, John Laughter, stated the following:
“For decades, Delta has actively played a role in supporting the US Military and our troops. And we are again proud to pledge Delta people and our aircraft in support our country’s relief efforts.”
American Airlines released the following statement:
“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. American will work to minimize the impact to customers as the airline temporarily removes these aircraft from our operation. The airline appreciates customers’ patience and understanding as it works to accommodate flights.”
The third CRAF activation
This is only the third activation since the inception of the program. On December 15th, 1951, as a joint agreement between the DOD and the Department of Commerce, the CRAF program came into realization. Following the Berlin airlift, the program gives the DOD greater resources to support air evacuation or other operations.
The first CRAF activation came in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, running from August 1990 through May 1991. The second activation was for Operation Iraqi Freedom, running from February 2002 through June 2003.
In return for participating in the CRAF program, airlines receive access to lucrative peacetime flying. This includes being able to fly DOD charters and cargo flights.
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Bringing civil aircraft into the evacuation
With the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the demand for seats departing Afghanistan vastly outweighed the number of seats available. This led to many heartbreaking videos and images coming from the Kabul airport as the last commercial departures took off.
Kabul’s airport is mostly hosting military evacuations. In the early days of the evacuation, as the Taliban were rapidly taking over more of the country, civil aircraft continued to fly to and from Kabul International Airport (KBL), giving passengers a way out of the country. Air India flew directly into Kabul, while other carriers like Lufthansa set up an air bridge to Tashkent and Doha to support the government’s evacuation.
The US government is not anticipating a major hit to aircraft schedules with the CRAF activation. Given that long-haul international demand is still suppressed, it should not cause too much of an impact for travelers as airlines send mainly widebodies to support the US mission.
What do you make of the DOD’s activation of CRAF? Let us know in the comments!