(CNN) – The Department of Defense is mobilizing commercial airlines to aid the United States’ evacuation effort in Afghanistan, which has turned out to be chaotic as thousands desperate to leave the country after the Taliban quickly take control.
The Pentagon announced on Sunday that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered the commander of the U.S. Transportation Command to initiate the first phase of his civil reserve air fleet to fly U.S. citizens, special immigrant visa applicants, and other vulnerable persons out of Afghanistan.
Austin’s directive will activate 18 commercial flights to aid evacuation efforts: three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines.
The planes will not fly to Hamid Karzai International Airport but “will be used to transport passengers from temporarily safe ports and intermediate bases,” the Pentagon said in a press release.
As a sign of the gravity and urgency of the situation, the program was activated for the third time in its history, the first two times being Operations Desert Shield / Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to the Pentagon.
Activating the program will “increase passenger movement beyond organic capacity and allow military aircraft to focus on operations in and out of Kabul,” the Defense Ministry said.
CNN has asked the airlines for a comment.
United Airlines announced on Sunday that it is putting four Boeing 777-300s into service as part of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.
“United is proud to partner with the Department of Defense and support the humanitarian mission to fly American citizens and Afghan evacuees,” the airline said in a statement, adding that it is still trying to reduce the scale of the “small” expected ” Effects on the rest of the business.
Atlas Air is âproud to provide the Pentagon with essential passenger services in the region at this critical time. We are doing as much as possible to provide the much-needed capacity to support the evacuation effort, “a company spokesman told CNN.
More than 20,000 people in and around Kabul Airport have attempted to board flights out of the country amid one of the largest airlifts in history.
Pictures and reports have surfaced of families climbing the walls of the airport with a video of a baby being hoisted over barbed wire to a U.S. Marine. In the past week, around 20 people are said to have been killed in mass attacks or gunfire. Seven Afghan civilians died in clashes near the airport on Saturday, a UK Defense Department spokesman told CNN.
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CNN’s Pete Muntean, Sheena McKenzie and Nick Paton Walsh contributed to this report.