WASHINGTON -- For only the second time in a half-century, the U.S. military has activated a reserve fleet of commercial aircraft to move troops to a potential war zone. Both times, the destination has been the Persian Gulf.
Pentagon officials said 13 flights were scheduled to fly troops Monday after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld mobilized the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, passenger and cargo planes that can be used to move servicemembers and equipment in emergencies and when there aren't enough military planes to do it.
The fleet was established in 1951. The only other time it was activated was in 1990-91, in the buildup to the Persian Gulf War and during the war itself.
Rumsfeld on Saturday authorized the first stage of the mobilization, meaning officials can call up 78 aircraft -- 47 passenger planes and 31 wide-body cargo planes. For now, Air Force Gen. John W. Handy, head of the U.S. Transportation Command, has enough cargo planes, so he called up only the passenger aircraft, command spokesman Navy Capt. Steve Honda said Monday.
There are 11 carriers signed up for this first stage of mobilization, Honda said by phone from command offices at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
They are American Airlines, American Trans Air, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, North American Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Omni Air International, United Airlines, US Airways and World Airways.
The transportation command relies heavily on contracts with the commercial transport industry -- sea, air and land -- to move troops, equipment and supplies worldwide in support of the nation's defense. Historically, 93 percent of troops and 41 percent of long-range air cargo are moved by chartered commercial aircraft.
The reserve fleet is mobilized -- and airlines have 24 to 48 hours to provide the aircraft -- only when there are not enough volunteers. The Pentagon has been having trouble finding volunteers from the industry that has been plagued by bankruptcies.
The fleet can be mobilized in three stages, each calling for more aircraft. As of last month, 33 carriers and 927 aircraft were enrolled in all stages.
In return for participating, carriers are given preference for the defense department's peacetime passenger and cargo business and guaranteed that the burden of carrying out a deployment will be spread fairly among all participating.