Pentagon enlists unused airliners to help departures from Kabul

VICTORVILLE, CA - MARCH 27:  A number of Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are parked at Southern California Logistics Airport on March 27, 2019 in Victorville, California. Southwest Airlines is waiting out a global grounding of the MAX 8 and MAX 9 aircraft at the airport.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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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 (local time) 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. read more

"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 Airlines 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 minimise 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."

In the past 24 hours, about 3,900 people have been evacuated from Kabul on 35 coalition aircraft, including commercial airlines, and 3,900 others on 23 U.S. military flights, according to the White House. Altogether, about 25,100 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 has confirmed.