DALLAS — In general, air transport is vital in delivering food, medical supplies, and search and rescue services to disaster and conflict zones, assisting with the evacuation of those stranded by disasters or conflict.
When airlines need to evacuate their crews from conflict zones, they typically work closely with the military and government agencies to coordinate the transport of personnel out of the affected area. However, airlines have their own risk assessment processes and protocols in place to ensure the safety of their passengers and crew.
Here are some ways airlines plan and evacuate their crews from conflict zones:
- Civil Reserve Air Fleet: The U.S. Department of Defense can activate the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which requests commercial airlines to volunteer their aircraft and crews to transport evacuees.
- Volunteer pilots and crew: Airlines that participate in extraction efforts seek volunteer pilots and crew to help with the evacuation. Pilots are paid their usual salary for flying aircraft under the temporary guidance of the military.
- Coordination with government agencies: Airlines work closely with government agencies to coordinate the transport of personnel out of the affected area.
- Risk assessment: Airlines conduct risk assessments to determine whether it is safe to operate flights in and out of conflict zones. This can be challenging due to commercial and political pressures that go against the normal “err on the side of caution” principle in flight operations.
- Adjustment of flight schedules: Airlines may adjust their flight schedules to ensure the safety of their crews and passengers. For example, some airlines have suspended or reduced flights to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport (TLV) amid the conflict with Hamas and escalating attacks on Gaza.
In situations where there is an imminent risk of war, the first action taken by airlines is to halt flights in and out of the conflict area. Carriers also have volunteer programs at destination airports to accommodate the influx of passengers aboard last-minute flights.
However, in situations where crew members are stranded in a conflict zone, airlines make desperate but guided efforts to evacuate them. American Airlines (AA), Delta Air Lines (DL), and United Airlines (UA) evacuated their crew and non-revenue passengers from Israel, conducting additional flights from TLV that did not carry regular passengers.
In one example, UA crews volunteered to work the flights in and out so that employees there for work or pleasure could get out before all commercial flights were suspended. They flew in, overnighted at a local hotel, heard the bombings going off, and the next morning went to the airport where employees were waiting to get on the flights and flew out.
The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), which represents aircrew at UA, said its members had shown remarkable courage in helping to get passengers and fellow crew out of Israel despite the events unfolding around them.
Another crew extraction came from Air India (AI), which had the crew on a layover in Tel Aviv when the conflict ensued—those who would have operated the return leg (AI140). The crew, as well as the station manager for Tel Aviv, had to be evacuated from Israel. The airline put them on Ethiopian Airlines (ET) and flew them back to India.
During World War II, airlines worked closely with the military to transport people and materials, and the Air Transport Command functioned as an international airline, combining the efforts of the Ferry Command and the Air Service Command to move cargo and personnel throughout the country and around the world.
Today, the efforts by UA and other airlines to evacuate their crews out of Israel reminds us of Pan Am’s Mission 1965/31, a secret evac flight that took place at Tan Son Nhat Airport (SGN) in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, six days before the fall of the city on April 30, 1975.
At the time, the situation in South Vietnam had become tense. The People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong had amassed on the outskirts of Saigon as they prepared for a final assault on the city. Pan Am responded swiftly.
A group of Pan Am Flight Crews volunteered for mission 1965/31, which would be the last passenger flight out of South Vietnam to evacuate the airline’s Vietnamese staff and those they could cram in a Boeing 747. It’s a harrowing tale for the books.
However, cramming as many people on a commercial aircraft is a delicate matter. In May of this year, a Boeing 727-200F from Astral Aviation experienced a runway excursion at Juba Airport (JUB) in South Sudan on April 28. The freighter was carrying more than 300 people. None were injured.
After landing on runway 13, the old cargo plane, which once belonged to Braniff, could no longer come to a stop in time before the end of the runway. While the reason for the incursion was unknown at first, the Boeing 727 could only carry half of the passengers involved in the incident, not to mention that the aircraft in question was a cargo version of the jet.
Assessing the Risks
For context, TLV normally receives approximately 37,000 passengers daily, according to data from Cirium’s Diio. The majority of these passengers come from the US, although Greece and Turkey, which are located nearby, collectively send more passengers than the United States does, taking second and third place in terms of passenger numbers.
However, OpsGroup, an international membership organization for pilots and other aviation staff, has issued a stark warning about the conflict in Israel. They state that the risk of a passenger aircraft becoming a casualty of this war is high. The group emphasizes that all lessons learned regarding civil operations in conflict zones since the MH17 incident need to be applied in this situation.
Despite the warning, British Airways (BA) and Virgin Atlantic (VS) continue to operate flights from London Heathrow (LHR) to Israel. They insist that they would never operate a flight unless it was safe to do so. Other airlines still serving Israel include El Al (LY) and Israir (6H), while non-Israeli carriers such as Air Europa (UX), Iberia (IB), and Flydubai (FZ) also continue to fly to the beleaguered nation.
In times of conflict, numerous airlines contribute donations both at a corporate and individual level. However, it is their practical assistance and swift response in emergency situations, such as evacuating passengers and crew and transporting essential supplies, that make commercial aviation an invaluable ally to aid agencies, governments, and nations.
Featured image: Passengers board a Delta Airlines aircraft at Yokota Air Base, Japan, March 12, 2011. The aircraft was diverted to Yokota AB from Narita International Airport after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck off the eastern coast of Japan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse)(Released)