On Sunday Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered six U.S. commercial airlines to help transport American and Afghan evacuees from destinations they have been sent out of Afghanistan.  Austin activated a little-known program called the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.

The plan calls for the deployment of 18 airplanes with three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, and Omni Air, two planes from Hawaiian Airlines, and four from United Airlines, according to a Pentagon statement.

The planes will not fly into the Kabul airport but will be used to transport people who have already been sent from Kabul to countries around the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe, the Pentagon said.  The Department of Defense said it did not anticipate any major impact to commercial flights from this activation. 

Austin told ABC News on Sunday that the U.S. is working to get every American out of the country. Also, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told CBS News on Sunday that over the past 24 hours the U.S. has evacuated 8,000 people from Afghanistan.

“CRAF activation provides the Department of Defense access to commercial air mobility resources to augment our support to the Department of State in the evacuation of U.S. citizens and personnel, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and other at-risk individuals from Afghanistan,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement.

U.S. defense officials say that the military is looking for alternative ways to get Americans, Afghans and third-country nationals safely to the airport in Kabul following threats from the Islamic State, NBC News reported Saturday.

“The Department does not anticipate a major impact to commercial flights from this activation,” Kirby said. 

U.S. carriers have deployed some of their largest planes for domestic flights with international travel demand still down sharply because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“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,” United said in a statement.

Delta said it will have “multiple relief flights arriving back in the United States beginning Monday morning.” The carrier said it is using spare aircraft and that commercial flights are not currently affected.

American Airlines said it will be ready to deploy three wide-body planes for CRAF starting Monday.

“American will work to minimize the impact to customers as the airline temporarily removes these aircraft from our operation,” it said in a statement. “The airline appreciates customers’ patience and understanding as it works to accommodate flights.”

Atlas Air, a cargo carrier and one of the airlines that flies for Amazon’s air arm, regularly supplies airlift to the U.S. military. The company’s passenger fleet includes Boeing 747-400s with 374 passenger seats, and 767-300s with 215 passenger seats, according to its website.

“We are doing as much as possible to provide the much-needed capacity to support the evacuation efforts,” an Atlas spokeswoman said.

This is only the third time the reserve air fleet has been used in its 70-year history, which signals the dire situation to assist American citizens and Afghan refugees.  The previous deployment of civilian aircraft was during the Iraq war from 2002 to 2003, and the Gulf war from 1990 to 1991.

Thanks to our friends at CNBC for helping contribute to this article.

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