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."
The airlines, facing a deep travel slump caused by the weak economy and disruption from the terrorist attacks, are in dire financial straits. With the industry losing billions of dollars, the airlines have slashed the size of their operations, mothballed hundreds of jets and laid off thousands of workers. The military is chiefly interested in wide-bodied planes, such as 747s, 767s and DC-10s, which can fit large numbers of troops and can be retrofitted relatively easily to carry heavy cargo. Each airline makes its own arrangement with the Air Force. As the airline industry has changed and 747s have been gradually pulled out of fleets in exchange for smaller craft, Defense officials have worried that the airlines might not be prepared to meet the military's needs.
Even so, there are 927 planes from more than 30 airlines, air cargo operators and charter services currently enrolled, the General Accounting Office said in a report Dec. 30.
The airlines "can respond to an emergency or a war within the required number of aircraft and crews and within the required timeframe," according to the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.
Its report was in response to concerns voiced by Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who chairs the military readiness subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. He asked the GAO to review the program amid fears that the airline industry's severe woes might leave it unable to meet its needs.
Although the Pentagon manages the missions from the Air Force's Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, the carriers use their own employees to fly, maintain and fuel the airplanes. During peacetime, the airlines in the program are allowed to bid for Defense Department business as an incentive to keep them under contract in the program.
If CRAF is activated, it wouldn't help the airlines' financial condition to have some of their planes carrying troops and cargo instead of commercial passengers, but it probably wouldn't be an enormous detriment, airline officials said privately.
It is not a simple matter of choosing from the hundreds of idled jetliners now parked in the California desert. It's doubtful that the Pentagon would want to wait for planes to be taken out of mothballs, airline officials said. But if needed, the idle aircraft could be used to replace those grabbed by the Pentagon.
The larger industry concern is a war itself. If fighting breaks out, the airlines fear that travel -- especially international travel -- would weaken further and that fuel prices would soar, making it even more difficult for the airlines to rebound.
Schrader reported from Washington and Peltz from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington contributed to this report.