Traveling Space-A: With patience and luck, a free trip could be the prize
Hundreds of military I.D. cardholders take advantage of a special military
benefit that allows a free ride on military aircraft and charters. They're
bound for Germany, Hawaii, Japan and exotic locations such as New Zealand for
fun and adventure. But there's a catch. Travelers need a generous amount of
patience and flexibility.
It's called Space-A, for
space available, and most travelers don't have to spend a dime.
Staff Sgt. Alana Green
used her space-a privilege for the first time to travel from San Antonio to
Washington to spend the holidays with her family. She seemed apprehensive
sitting in the passenger service terminal playroom with her 20-month-old
son, Auden. They were waiting to board a C-5 Galaxy bound for Travis Air
Force Base, Calif.
But she had followed
some primary Space-A travel rules. If she couldn't make a connecting flight
to McChord Air Force Base, Wash., the same day, she had a network of family
members ready to take her in until a flight opened up.
She also allotted
herself three weeks of leave for a two-week stay just in case she needed the
extra days to hop back home--since Space-A isn't a guaranteed process. And
in a worst-case scenario, she had cash to buy a commercial return ticket, if
John Lundeby would
probably give her high marks. As acting chief of the passenger policy branch
for Air Mobility Command, he knows the ins and outs of Space-A travel. And
he's fully aware of the trials and tribulations of the Defense Department
policy that encourages eligible I.D. cardholders to take advantage of this
"quality of life benefit."
"We encourage people
to fly Space-A. But we also encourage them to have a plan, be flexible and
set funds aside," Mr. Lundeby said.
Each year thousands of
active duty, family members, retirees, students, cadets and teachers are
able to take advantage of excess seats on military aircraft through Space-A.
They hop on cargo planes, tankers and commercial charters bound for
Australia, Ecuador, Germany, Hawaii, Italy, New Zealand, Singapore and
Central and South America. Unfortunately though, loved ones who miss their
deployed spouse or child and ask to fly Space-A on a plane headed for
Baghdad or Kuwait are not allowed, said Mr. Lundeby.
For many, flying
Space-A is an adventurous way of tramping around the world. But for Pearl
Willette it was more of a matter of money. She wanted to attend a wedding in
Cancun, Mexico, but lives at Camp Foster, Japan, with her Marine husband and
three children. Getting there by commercial air would have meant more than
$10,000 for a family of five.
Instead, they flew
Space-A from Kadena Air Base, Japan, to Los Angeles on the "Patriot
Express," a military charter. The civilian airliner is used for permanent
change of station moves and for temporary duty. But if seats are available,
it's first-come, first-served based on movement categories, for those who
meet Space-A travel requirements. In L.A., the Willettes rented a car, drove
to Houston and flew commercial to Cancun.
The family was on its
way home at the Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, passenger terminal waiting
with Sergeant Green to board the C-5 to Travis. From there, their goal was
to make connections to Hawaii, Guam, South Korea and finally home. They were
tired but none the worse for wear considering the long hours spent in "pax"
terminals. Their kids napped on the floor.
Outside of sleeping
the time away, Mrs. Willette has found other ways to keep her family
entertained during long waiting periods. She suggests parents have a new toy
their children can open up on the plane, and plenty of books, CDs,
electronic games--and motion sickness medicine, just in case.
Going the distance
Part of the Willettes'
success in procuring seats was that they traveled Category 2. There are six
Space-A categories to prioritize seat assignment. Category 1 is for those on
emergency leave. Category 2 is for people, like the Willettes, on
environmental morale leave. Category 3 is for active duty on leave, foreign
military members and Medal of Honor recipients.
Category 6 included
military retiree Vincent Lamm and his wife, Magda, who were attempting a hop
to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, to visit their son for Christmas. The
85-year-old retired Soldier was optimistic about getting seats. He should
know. The former master sergeant has been on the Space-A go since retiring
in Hawaii in 1975, where he became a creative writing and English teacher at
a community college.
"As soon as school was
out, the boys and I took off," he said. Their Space-A adventures took them
to Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and New Zealand. "We've had some
fantastic experiences," he said, calling Space-A, "the biggest fringe
benefit the military member has."
Mr. Lamm has a big
advantage over his active duty Space-A counterparts --time. Although active
duty members get 30 days of leave each year, their vacation time is more
precious, he said. Some might not want to waste it waiting in pax terminals.
But, he stressed the
virtue of patience when traveling Space-A. A cargo plane can take off for
one destination and change plans in midair due to mission requirements. Or
the plane you've been waiting three days to board can be canceled at the
last minute because of mechanical problems. Maybe the 20 seats listed as
available for Space-A travelers will disappear at the last minute if extra
cargo shows up. He recalled a time sitting on a bus near an aircraft,
waiting for the signal to board. The signal never came because the crew
didn't show. Someone forgot to give them a wake-up call.
"I've seen people
break down and cry," he said of the stress such travel can cause. And he's
seen "families battle each other" after days of hanging around a terminal
Risky but worth it
"It's risky but with a
bit of planning you can make it work ... the name says everything," said
Senior Airman Emmanuel Monteau, a passenger service representative at Dover
Air Force Base, Del. He's assisted as many as 300 people a day heading to
Germany aboard C-5s that can comfortably seat up to 73 passengers in the
upper bay. Space-A travelers also should be prepared for a variety of
seating, like the web seats stretched alongside the fuselage of a C-130
The Airman's seen the
look of anguish on the face of travelers whose aircraft experienced a
mission change after waiting three or four days for it to launch. Others
walk away disappointed because of a lack of preparation. First-time
travelers often assume just because they signed up for Space-A, they have a
reserved seat as if flying with American Airlines, he said.
"Always have a backup
plan. Always be flexible," he stressed.
He had a chance to
practice what he preaches this year on his first Space-A attempt with his
girlfriend. He had the flight picked out from Dover to Germany, but its
mission changed and wasn't a viable option. A little research revealed
another flight departing from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., which they
caught and successfully pulled off their vacation in Paris.
"Although Space-A has
some ups and downs, it's a good opportunity. Don't let one bad experience
ruin it for you," he said.
Tips for the traveler
Space-A can cost a few bucks. Box lunches can cost about $3.
At some overseas
locations, terminals must collect a "head tax" or a federal inspection fee,
though it's not much, said Master Sgt. Ordena Willis. He's the
noncommissioned officer in charge of passenger operations for Air Mobility
Command's passenger policy branch.
"It's still a great
deal. Your best bet is to travel during non-peak periods, you'll find the
terminals less congested and fewer people trying to fly space-A. There
should be more seats available," he said. "But holidays and the summer are
the more difficult travel times."
Here are other things
Be flexible and patient.
Have a backup plan; money for a rental car or commercial airline ticket
Bring plenty of items to keep you entertained during long wait times.
Stay with friends along the way and avoid expensive hotels.
Get educated. Visit Space-A Web sites for rules, tips and contact info for
Question local passenger service representatives.
Pick the brain of a retiree who has years of Space-A experience.
More Space A Travel Information...