The United States has enlisted the help of six commercial airlines to help transport people after their evacuation from Afghanistan as Washington seeks to step up the pace of departures of Americans and at-risk Afghans from Kabul.
The Pentagon said on Sunday it called up 18 civilian aircraft from United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air and others to carry people from temporary locations after they landed on flights from Afghanistan, leaning on the industry it last called on during the Iraq War in 2003.
The move highlights the difficulty Washington is having carrying out the evacuations following the Taliban’s swift takeover.
Thousands of people remained outside the Kabul international airport on Sunday hoping to be evacuated as Taliban gunmen beat back crowds.
“It’s a program that was designed in the wake of the Berlin airlift after World War Two to use commercial aircraft to augment our airlift capacity,” President Joe Biden said in an address from the White House on Sunday afternoon, adding that airlines voluntarily signed up for the program.
Biden said the flights would bring people from “staging locations” like Qatar and Germany to the United States or a third country. He called it the initial stage of the program.
“None of them will be landing in Kabul,” he said.
American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and privately held Omni Air will provide three aircraft each. There are also two from Hawaiian Airlines, and four from United Airlines.
American and Delta said they would start relief flights on Monday and, along with other carriers, welcomed the call to aid the U.S. military amid the humanitarian crisis.
“American … 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,” it said in a statement.
Biden said the operation should have only a minimal effect on commercial flights.
Delta said its commercial operations were unaffected, while American said it “will work to minimize the impact to customers as the airline temporarily removes these aircraft from our operation.” United said it was still assessing the impact but expected it “to be minimal.”
Atlas Air said it would carry evacuees to the United States “and will be standing by should additional capacity be needed.”
In the 12 hours up to 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Sunday, about 3,400 people were evacuated from Kabul on 39 coalition aircraft, including commercial airlines, and 1,700 others on eight U.S. military flights, according to the White House. Altogether, about 30,300 people have been evacuated since August 14, it added.
Bahrain’s national carrier, Gulf Air, operated a flight from Isa Air Base to Dulles International Airport outside Washington as part of the evacuation efforts, Bahrain’s government’s media office, NCC, said on Sunday.
The United States last utilized the “Civil Reserve Air Fleet” in the period leading up to and including the invasion of Iraq and prior to that, the 1991 Gulf War.
The limited number of aircraft is just one of the issues facing the evacuation from Afghanistan that has evacuees being sent to a dozen countries.
Officials have said they are also frustrated with slow processing by the Department of Homeland Security and State Department, and there is increasing concern about security in Kabul.
The United States and its allies have brought in several thousand troops to manage the evacuations of foreign citizens and vulnerable Afghans, but have stayed away from areas outside of the Kabul airport.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN the United States had “secured the capacity to get large numbers of Americans safe passage through the airport and onto the airfield” in Afghanistan, but gave no details.
Last week, the U.S. military used three military helicopters to bring 169 Americans to the Kabul airport from a building just 650 feet (200 m) away. Officials say that type of operation is expected to continue.
Biden said he directed the State Department to contact Americans stranded in Afghanistan by phone, email and other means and that the United States was “executing a plan” to move them to the Kabul airport.
“I will say again today what I’ve said before: Any American who wants to get home will get home,” Biden said.