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Pentagon Readies Plans to Recruit Civilian Aircraft

Planes would be used to ferry troops to Persian Gulf. Industry officials say they are more worried about a war's effect on business.

January 17, 2003|Esther Schrader and James F. Peltz | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is drafting plans to commandeer dozens of civilian airliners to ferry troops to the Persian Gulf. It would be just the second time the military has exercised such powers since gaining the authority during the Korean War.

Pentagon officials say the buildup of soldiers, aviators and naval forces in preparation for a possible war with Iraq has begun to stretch resources for transporting troops and equipment.

The woeful condition of the airline industry has raised questions about the economic impact of such a call-up. But industry officials and analysts say privately that they are more worried about the effect of a war on commercial air travel than about the costs of activating the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF).

Indeed, with more than 900 aircraft in mothballs because of the slump in air travel, the industry has plenty of excess capacity to meet the Pentagon's needs.

"Overarching everything is that, if there's a war, I think the airlines feel they'll be seriously harmed, based on their experience of the Gulf War," when business among domestic airlines declined 8%, said one airline industry observer who is closely monitoring the negotiations between the airlines and the Pentagon.

"The American public post- 9/11 is very jittery about flying. Doing government work takes up a small bit of excess capacity, but overall a war is very, very bad for the airlines."

Airline and military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say that no decision has been made to call up aircraft.

But a senior Defense official acknowledged this week that such a call-up is "part of the plan" as the buildup of forces and equipment around Iraq gains speed. Two of the nation's largest carriers confirmed that they are in negotiations with the Department of Defense about putting the program in motion.

"We have had discussions with the Department of Defense about it, in anticipation that at some point, given the way things are going, a call-up could occur," one airline industry official said. "CRAF is a program that is relied on when the bell goes off."

The civilian air fleet was created in 1951 as a way to boost airlift capacity during times of crisis. Under the program, airlines agree to loan planes and crews to the military in wartime for a fee and the promise of government business in peacetime.

The program ferried more than 400,000 troops to the Persian Gulf in 1991 -- the only time it has been implemented. But as air carriers' financial condition has worsened, the Pentagon has had trouble coaxing carriers to stay in the program.

The Pentagon initiated a review of the program in April, and industry groups have been lobbying hard to do away with it. Airlines have no choice, once enrolled in the program, but to provide the planes the military requests. Virtually every major domestic carrier -- 33 in all -- is enrolled in the program, which has long been considered as much a patriotic duty as a business proposition.

The government pays the airlines predetermined fees based on the carriers' costs of flying the missions, plus a negotiated rate of return. But planes can be called up by the military without being immediately used, and airlines are not compensated while their planes are grounded. The airlines were paid $1.2 billion for their role in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Since then, as the industry's condition has worsened, the program has been in trouble. American Airlines pulled out and had to be coaxed back in, according to the National Defense Transportation Assn., an industry group.

Meanwhile, the military's use of civilian airplane charters has skyrocketed. Ninety percent of U.S. troops deployed around the world in the last five years have been flown to their assignments on commercial charters. In fiscal year 2002, the Pentagon spent $1.4 billion on charters, mostly to move troops in support of the war on terrorism, more than double the previous year's cost.

But the charters are not always available in the quantities the Pentagon wants. Under CRAF, airlines must deliver the planes and crews to military staging points on 24 hours' notice.

There are three stages of call-up under the program. Under Stage 1, 78 planes are obligated to military service. That rises to 291 aircraft in Stage 2 and as many as 929 in Stage 3 -- roughly one-fifth of the commercial passenger and cargo fleet of about 4,700 planes. The Persian Gulf campaign reached Stage 2.

"When CRAF is needed, it is there, and we will rely heavily on it," said a senior Defense official. "But you really don't want to call it up unless you have to because it disrupts the airlines."

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