Airline's bankruptcy strands U.S. troops in Middle East

WASHINGTON — The abrupt collapse of ATA Airlines has left an untold number of U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines stuck in Iraqi and Afghan airports while they await a ride home. Some face travel delays of up to a week, military officials acknowledge.

"It's hard to believe that when this bankruptcy happened, the Department of Defense didn't have a backup plan," Bret Rumbeck, press secretary for Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said Tuesday. "It seems they dropped the ball a little bit."

Costa is one of several lawmakers who've been drawn into the homecoming headache. The mother of a Marine reconnaissance sergeant from Fresno, Calif., who was stranded in Iraq contacted Costa's office late last week to complain about her son's treatment.

The mother, who so far has declined to be identified publicly, told Costa's congressional staff that her son, a sergeant in the North Carolina-based Marine 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, was scheduled to depart from Iraq for Camp Lejeune on Thursday. On Wednesday, the Marines learned they couldn't leave. As of Sunday, new travel plans hadn't been set.

The stranded troops were scheduled to travel by military plane from Iraq to Kuwait, and then by charter back to the United States. A low-cost, no-frills airline based in Indianapolis, ATA filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and canceled flights on April 3 in the wake of rising fuel costs and lost contracts.

The company was part of a larger military charter team managed by Federal Express. In September, according to Aviation Week, the FedEx team won a one-year, $1 billion airlift contract with the U.S. Transportation Command. When FedEx recently announced plans to drop ATA from the military charter team, offering no public explanation, airline officials said they had no choice but to shut down.

Military transportation officials consequently had to start shifting planes from one region to another in order to pick up the slack. The resulting delays have hit worldwide, though probably most poignantly for those returning from the Persian Gulf war zone.

"We are a global transportation system, and ATA was one of our air carriers," U.S. Transportation Command media officer Cynthia Bauer said Tuesday. "Any problem in one area will affect the whole system."The Pentagon's congressional liaison further advised Costa's office in writing that "the airline's bankruptcy has affected redeployment" for troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and the surrounding region. Bauer said travel delays of two to six days have resulted.

"We expect this to last for several weeks," Bauer said. "We want to do our best to get everyone home."

The transportation command is busy, hauling about 59,000 military passengers worldwide last month. Still, the fallout from ATA's failure is prompting frustrated lawmakers to turn up the heat.

"After completing their service to our country overseas, our men and women deserve a safe return home without delays," Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and two of his fellow Vermont lawmakers wrote Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Leahy, writing on behalf of two stranded Vermont soldiers, pressed the Pentagon to reveal how many other soldiers faced delays and for how long. Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, further joined his colleagues in urging officials to identify backup transportation plans.