The Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) program uses commercial airplanes to support military and … [+]
The recent evacuation from Afghanistan resulted in some headlines stating that the Pentagon “orders” or “compels” U.S. Airlines to help by using their aircraft. This somewhat mis-leading statement was confusing to many, wondering how the government could force the use of private assets that way. Why would airlines like American and Delta have to send their planes across the globe to aid in a government-sponsored program?
Behind this request is a long-serving and well documented program called the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, or CRAF. CRAF is part of the Defense Production Act that was used to quickly create PPE early in the pandemic. CRAF is a way to use the production economy to aid in a government-sponsored initiative, saving the need to be ready with only government resources for everything.
The Civil Reserve Air Fleet started after the Berlin airlift in 1951. It is a voluntary program, and most major U.S. Airlines are part of CRAF though none of them are required to be. The government at that time recognized that using commercial aircraft could be an advantage for certain military or humanitarian efforts. Using the powers from the Defense Production Act of 1950, CRAF was created for this purpose and over the many decades since has been activated only three times. The first two activations were for Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91 and then again in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2002-03. The government clearly does not use this authority wastefully, with the program in place for four decades before its first use and since then only two times more.
In all three activations of commercial aircraft for a government program need under this program, the military was able to act more swiftly and more efficiently than if only military aircraft could be used. In all three cases, large passenger and freight movements were needed and that is just what commercial U.S. airlines are good at. Airlines with long-range, high-capacity, wide-body aircraft are most valuable to the CRAF program because they can move a lot of people and goods a long distance. One could imagine a humanitarian effort in a closer geography like Haiti, where smaller, narrow-body aircraft could be helpful in CRAF. But to date, the government has called on the airlines that have wide-body equipment, along with the crews to operate and maintain them. In this most recent activation, planes from American, Delta, Hawaiian, and United were used along with charter operator Omni Air and cargo operator Atlas Air. A total of 18 aircraft were used for the Afghanistan effort, and this was extremely helpful in the evacuation of many people and goods from the country.
Airlines that participate in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet benefit in several ways. There is the obvious “doing good for the country” benefit for companies that are quick to ask for government support when needed, as in the pandemic. More tangible is the fact the government spends a lot of money on commercial airlines to move people around in the normal course of their business. Being part of CRAF puts these airlines into a position where they can bid for and win some share of that business. Also, when the planes are actually called into use under CRAF, the airlines are paid for that use. While this may always not be a full recovery of the airlines’ costs, the amount of planes used has not often been a challenge for the airlines participating. The airlines may also have additional Department of Defense operations audits, supplementing those done regularly by the Federal Aviation Administration. While these audits could be seen as extra time or effort by the airlines, it also helps the airlines by identifying issues that they may need to address operationally.
The CRAF program is clearly symbiotic for the government and the airlines. The government is relieved from having to invest in aircraft that are only needed occasionally, and airlines can help their country while getting paid for their efforts and carry government traffic in the meantime. The fact that most major U.S. airlines participate suggests that airlines see this program as valuable and worthwhile. It is unfortunate that language like “compels” was used in recent headlines, as while this may be technically accurate under the program, it’s not as if the airlines didn’t expect it and hadn’t signed up for it. The government gets skewered by many for over-spending, like the famous “$500 hammers” legend that turned out not even to be true. While the government may overspend in some cases and use taxpayer money in inefficient ways other times, the CRAF program is one example of doing things right since it helps both the government and the airlines.
I am the former CEO of Spirit Airlines, where my strong team transformed the company into the highest margin airline in North America and created a new model for air
I am the former CEO of Spirit Airlines, where my strong team transformed the company into the highest margin airline in North America and created a new model for air travel in the US. I now serve on several public and private company boards, am an Adjunct Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and co-host the popular weekly podcast Airlines Confidential.