Inside the huge effort to fly Afghans to the US on commercial jets

Bill Wernecke at Delta Air Lines was driving his daughter to college when the call came telling him the US military wanted to use commercial airlines to fly Afghan refugees to American soil.

Father and daughter barely spoke over the hundreds of miles from the Kentucky-Tennessee border to northern Indiana. The managing director for Delta’s charter business was on the phone for almost six hours, preparing to staff and deploy three twin-aisle jets to move thousands of people across the globe.

Last month the US Department of Defense activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, or CRAF, which allows the government to commandeer commercial aircraft and crew, for only the third time since it was established in 1951. Airlines enrol in the programme, which pays them to ferry soldiers and other passengers during national emergencies, in exchange for the chance to bid on the government’s peacetime business.

The US military evacuated or facilitated the evacuation of about 124,000 people out of Kabul before withdrawing American troops by August 31 after two decades of war. They were flown to “lily pads” — military bases in Qatar, Bahrain, Germany and Italy to await commercial carriers to fly them to the US.

So far, about 25,000 people have arrived in the US, most of them touching down at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, with Philadelphia recently receiving evacuees too. Airlines are shuttling about 4,500 people a day from the overseas bases, with another 2,500 a day flown from their ports of arrival to military bases in Texas, Wisconsin and New Mexico. The programme is likely to remain in force until mid-September.

The government routinely charters planes from commercial carriers although it rarely invokes the second world war-era provision. But the Pentagon’s need for planes came as the airline industry continues to recover from the financial and operational devastation wrought by the pandemic. Defence officials used CRAF on this occasion, Wernecke said, because “they didn’t get enough volunteers”.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former defence department official, said CRAF allowed the Pentagon to bypass reluctance and delays.

The defence department previously activated the programme in 1990 for the first Gulf war, and again in 2002. There are 24 carriers and 450 planes enrolled, according to the US Air Force’s Air Mobility Command. For the Afghanistan evacuees, the department commandeered 18 aeroplanes from six airlines.

Thousands of pilots, flight attendants and other aviation professionals have since signed up to staff the flights, citing a desire to help people whose lives have been wrecked by war.

“There’s the ‘holy cow’ moment — this is really happening — and then it turns into exhilaration because you have to get everybody mobilised,” Wernecke said. “Then it turns into frustration because things weren’t working . . . Then it turns into a global team, and companies figuring out a solution, and then it turns into rewarding.”

When a United Airlines plane stopped for a layover in Germany, the flight attendants went shopping to buy colouring books, crayons, socks, toothbrushes and diapers to distribute

Delta staffs its planes with 17 crew members: four more than an international commercial flight, including a mechanic, an extra pilot and two charter co-ordinators trained to handle tasks ranging from de-icing to rebalancing weight within a jet. A broad skill range is critical because, unlike at a commercial airport, there are no airline support staff at a military base.

Military bases also lack the flight catering services that usually provide food for a long flight. Delta’s crew stocked up on extra meals when they landed in Hahn, Germany, and kept them cold using dry ice. The airline also fitted planes with a “flyaway kit” containing a spare tire, landing gear and other parts in case repairs were needed.

There were snags in some of the early flights. Running low on meals, crew on one flight served pork to the passengers, which they do not eat for religious reasons. In other cases, the US military was not ready to board passengers when the planes arrived, and the crew, who are subject to federal regulations on how long they can work without rest breaks, exceeded their time limits.

The women, men and children boarding these flights arrive for the most part with their belongings in plastic bags, say airline workers. Out of approximately 300 people on one flight, only a handful checked bags. The planes were a new experience for many, as were the flushable toilets for some. After hearing that passengers on an earlier flight had been impressed by an airborne glimpse of a German forest, Delta pilot Bill Ott told translators to alert the cabin when their plane flew over the night-time lights of New York.

Artemis Bayandor, a former flight attendant who now works in United Airlines’ safety department, knew she wanted to volunteer as a translator as soon as she read the company-wide email. Her family fled the Iranian revolution when she was a child, and the kindness of the flight attendants on that journey had inspired her to join the airline industry.

As the flight slowly filled up in Bahrain, the passengers nervously asked her whether the plane was really flying to Washington. “The fear was really real,” said Bayandor, who speaks Farsi. “They thought they were going back to Kabul.”

Bayandor had loaded her small suitcase with lollipops and Twix and KitKat chocolate bars, which were a hit with the many children. When the plane stopped for a layover in Germany, the flight attendants went shopping to buy colouring books, crayons, socks, toothbrushes and diapers to distribute.

There was a palpable difference in attitude between the teenage boys and girls on board. With the boys, “there was a lot of nerves, they’re leaving their whole life behind”, said Bayandor. “But the girls were excited. They would ask me questions about music and about clothing.”

One woman who boarded was pregnant. Bayandor joked with her that she was forbidden from going into labour on the plane or in Germany, which does not allow birthright citizenship. The passenger replied, “I’m going to hold this baby in until I get to America.” Her daughter was born a few days after arrival in the US.

The flights have been emotional for the airline workers involved. United pilot Jennifer Shields has flown two flights from Washington to Wisconsin. She recalled an Afghan woman carrying a baby climbing down a steep flight of steps to the tarmac while holding her toddler’s hand. Her older child was struggling to disembark until a National Guardswoman swooped in, picked the child up and carried her down.

“I had tears in my eyes,” she said. “It’s things like that, that you see. The human spirit — it’s pretty amazing.”

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