As part of the massive effort to send Afghans to the United States on commercial planes

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

Father and daughter barely spoke for hundreds of miles between the Kentucky-Tennessee border and northern Indiana. Delta’s general manager of charter business was on the phone for nearly six hours, preparing to recruit and deploy three dual-aisle jets to move thousands of people around the world.

Last month, the US Department of Defense activated the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet, or CRAF, which allows the government to requisition commercial aircraft and crews, for only the third time since its inception in 1951. The airlines are ‘enroll in the program, which pays them to transport soldiers and other passengers during national emergencies, in exchange for the opportunity to bid on government business in peacetime.

The US military evacuated or facilitated the evacuation of approximately 124,000 people from Kabul before withdrawing US troops on August 31 after two decades of war. They were flown to “water lilies” – military bases in Qatar, Bahrain, Germany and Italy to wait for commercial carriers to send them to the United States.

So far, around 25,000 people have arrived in the United States, most of them landing at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, with Philadelphia having recently also received evacuees. Airlines move about 4,500 people per day from bases overseas, and another 2,500 per day are flown from their ports of arrival to military bases in Texas, Wisconsin and New Mexico. The program is expected to remain in effect until mid-September.

The government regularly charters planes from commercial carriers, although it rarely invokes the WWII provision. But the Pentagon’s need for planes has come as the airline industry continues to recover from the financial and operational devastation caused by the pandemic. Defense officials used the CRAF on this occasion, Wernecke said, because “they didn’t have enough volunteers.”

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

The Department of Defense had previously activated the program in 1990 for the first Gulf War, and again in 2002. According to the Air Mobility Command of the US Air Force, 24 aircraft carriers and 450 aircraft are registered. For evacuees from Afghanistan, the department requisitioned 18 planes from six airlines.

Thousands of pilots, flight attendants and other aviation professionals have since signed up to outfit flights, citing a desire to help those whose lives have been destroyed by war.

“There’s the ‘holy cow’ moment – it really happens – and then it turns into exhilaration because you have to mobilize everyone,” Wernecke said. “Then it turns into frustration because things weren’t working. . . Then it turns into a global team and companies find a solution, then it becomes rewarding. “

When a United Airlines plane stopped for a stopover in Germany, flight attendants went shopping to buy coloring books, pencils, socks, toothbrushes and diapers to hand out.

Delta equips its planes with 17 crew members: four more than an international commercial flight, including a mechanic, an additional pilot and two charter coordinators trained to handle tasks ranging from de-icing to weight rebalancing in a jet. A wide range of skills is essential because, unlike a commercial airport, there are no air support personnel at a military base.

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

There were hiccups in some of the early flights. Running out of meals, a flight crew served passengers pork, which they did not eat for religious reasons. In other cases, the U.S. military was not prepared to pick up passengers on arriving planes, and the crew, who are federally regulated on how long they can work without breaks, have exceeded its deadlines.

Women, men and children on these flights mostly arrive with their belongings in plastic bags, airline workers say. Out of about 300 people on a flight, only a handful of checked baggage. Airplanes were a new experience for many, as were flush toilets for some. After hearing that passengers on a previous flight were in awe of an aerial glimpse of a German forest, Delta pilot Bill Ott asked translators to alert the cabin when their plane flew over the night lights of New York.

Artemis Bayandor, a former flight attendant who now works in United Airlines’ security, knew she wanted to volunteer as a translator as soon as she read the email across the board. the company. Her family fled the Iranian revolution as a child, and the kindness of the flight attendants on this trip prompted her to join the airline industry.

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

Bayandor had loaded his small suitcase with lollipops and Twix and KitKat candy bars, which were all the rage with many children. When the plane stopped for a stopover in Germany, flight attendants went shopping to buy coloring books, pencils, socks, toothbrushes and diapers to hand out.

There was a palpable difference in attitude between the teenagers and the girls on board. With the boys, “there were a lot of nerves, they leave their whole life behind,” Bayandor said. “But the girls were excited. They asked me about the music and the clothes.

A woman who got on board was pregnant. Bayandor joked with her that she was prohibited from giving birth on the plane or in Germany, which does not allow birthright citizenship. The passenger replied, “I’m going to keep this baby until I get to America.” Her daughter was born a few days after arriving in the United States.

The flights were emotional for the airline employees involved. United pilot Jennifer Shields flew two flights between Washington and Wisconsin. She recalled an Afghan woman carrying a baby walking down a steep flight of stairs to the tarmac while holding her toddler’s hand. Her older child was struggling to disembark until a National Guard arrived, picked up the child and carried her down.

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

Video: Highlights from an FT Subscriber Webinar on Afghanistan

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