With the Commercial Aviation Industry in a Nosedive, the Defense Department Offers Airlines a Lifeline

As the coronavirus pandemic roils the commercial airline industry, U.S. Transportation Command is becoming increasingly concerned about the impact to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, a program where U.S. airlines like United and Delta can fly transport missions on behalf of the Defense Department in an emergency.

The White House has not officially activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, or CRAF, to support of COVID-19 prevention operations. However, as travel restrictions force airlines to cancel flights and make cuts to their aircraft fleets, the military is looking for opportunities where it can offload work to its CRAF partners in the hopes of softening the financial blow, said Army Gen. Stephen Lyons, who leads TRANSCOM.

“On a cargo side, the civil aviation fleet is going pretty strong. On a passenger side, it has dropped off significantly,” Lyons told reporters Tuesday.

“We’re talking to [commercial airline companies] regularly. I am concerned, to some degree, about impacts on the passenger segment of the aviation industry, so any opportunity we have to push workload in their direction, we’re doing that.”

According to the Air Force, 25 airlines and a total 433 aircraft are involved in the CRAF program as of April 2019 — though those numbers often change on a monthly basis, the service notes.

So far, no commercial airline companies have notified the Defense Department that they will not be able to meet their contractual commitments for the CRAF program, said Air Mobility Command spokeswoman Capt. Nicole Ferrara.

But while the churn of the commercial airline industry hasn’t immediately resulted in a reduction of assets for the CRAF program, it remains to be seen whether there could be long term impact, especially as companies whittle down the size of their fleets and number of types of aircraft.

For instance, Delta Airlines in March announced it would speed up the retirements of its McDonnell Douglas MD-88 and MD-90 aircraft, as well as some older Boeing 767s.

Meanwhile, American Airlines announced it would accelerate the retirements of a number of aircraft fleets. Instead of retiring in 2025, its Boeing 757s will be phased out by mid-2021, while its Boeing 767s will leave the fleet this May instead of next year. The airline will also phase out all 20 of its Embraer E190s and all nine of its A330-300s over the next year.

To help companies build up revenue, the U.S. government issued contract awards to a number of commercial airlines to perform “repatriation flights” that transport American citizens and U.S. permanent residents, who are stranded in foreign countries, back to U.S. soil. On March 27, TRANSCOM was tapped to assist the Department of State Repatriation Task Force by managing contracts with the U.S. airline industry for commercial aircraft used to return Americans to the United States.

So far, TRANSCOM has been responsible for scheduling commercial flights for about 1,200 people since the command took over contracting efforts, Dave Dunn, a spokesman for the command, told Defense News last week.

During the first mission, planned for April 4, National Airlines transported U.S. citizens and permanent residents from Nigeria to Washington. TRANSCOM has also awarded contracts to Delta Air Lines and Omni Air for repatriation missions, with total value of $2.5 million across all three vendors.

There have still been some limited challenges to scheduling repatriation flights on commercial airlines, noted Dunn. For instance, travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus outbreak have made it difficult to route stopovers for crew rest and fuel, as many normal locations are not available.

However, Lyons said he expects the number of repatriation flights performed by commercial vendors to grow “significantly.”

“There will still be small numbers that move on a space available basis [via military aircraft] but the main effort is through our Civil Reserve Aviation Fleet partners that we use on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

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