By Sarah J Schmidt
I have been associated with the military for more than 20 years, but despite my love of travel, I had never been brave enough to "take a hop" until this past summer.
After two years in Germany, we had promised the kids a trip to the states for all the fast food they could stomach and some first-run movies with no subtitles, and we had promised the in-laws a much overdue visit. But soaring gas prices were pushing airfares well beyond what our family of four could pay to visit grandma.
Suddenly, traveling the Space-A way looked very attractive!
Space-A means flying on a "space available" basis aboard military aircraft at little or no cost. It’s one of the best perks of military service – if you approach it with an open mind and a flexible schedule.
Air Mobility Command (AMC), based at Scott Air Force Base, manages the Air Force’s worldwide airlift operations, which includes the Space-A program. AMC’s website (www.amc.af.mil) describes Space-A travel as "a privilege, not an entitlement." That’s your first clue about how to approach these flights. If you align expectations to this way of thinking, then Space-A offers great adventures. But if you’re looking for an "entitlement" with benefits such as first-class seating or in-flight movies, then Space-A is not for you.
This is not Delta or American Airlines. There is no beverage cart, no flight attendants in matching outfits, no chatty announcements from the flight deck. There are no airsick bags in the seat pocket. There’s probably not a seat pocket. There may not even be a seat.
But remember, you’re flying for free! You may need to repeat that to yourself throughout the trip. I did, as I stuffed ear plugs into my eight-year old’s ears for the 47th time aboard a KC-135 tanker bound for Ohio, while answering her constant questions about why she must wear them when they’re not necessary on a commercial jet.
Bring a pillow and a sleeping bag or blanket. Also, dress in layers for warmth. Most military aircraft are not heated uniformly; depending on where you sit, you may feel cool drafts or balmy blasts from a heating vent.
As soon as the tanker was airborne, the active duty guys who had flown this way many times before staked out their territory around cargo in the back of the plane. They rolled out sleeping bags atop cushion mats and ergonomic pillows, then dozed off for the next six hours. With a little coaxing, I got my kids to do the same and enjoyed several hours of shut-eye myself – something that’s virtually impossible to do sitting upright on a commercial jet. Never mind the need for earplugs; the space for sleeping was a real luxury, certainly a plus for Space-A travel!
Although some flights allow you to pre-order boxed meals, this tanker flight did not, so we took a cooler with sandwiches, drinks and snacks. Getting the cooler onboard was not an issue since the luggage restrictions on Space-A flights are more travel-friendly than commercial flights. Check with the terminal first. If you’re flying internationally, prepare to consume or trash all fruits and meats before landing so the customs agents don’t seize your cooler.
Passengers are permitted one hand-carried baggage item and one personal item (purse, briefcase, etc.). The cooler counted as one of our hand-carried bags. The rules for checked luggage are less restrictive than commercial rules, too, allowing each passenger up to two pieces of luggage at 70 pounds each. Another big plus: Families can pool that weight allowance. For instance, our family could have checked up to 280 pounds of luggage.
Of course, the biggest plus was the airfare savings. Our family saved more than $3,000. Fellow traveler SFC Nikidra Arthur of Wurzburg, Germany, estimates she saved $4,000 when she and her two children traveled Space-A to the U.S. this past summer. The savings allowed her to make the trip, which she says probably would not have been possible otherwise. Plus, it gave her a little pocket money to buy her kids’ back-to-school clothes at a discount in the U.S.
"You’re really saving a bundle when you’re flying Space-A," she says.
What’s The Catch?
Sure, free air travel to exotic destinations is appealing, but what’s the catch? Richard Gerstner, a civilian Department of Defense employee at Incirlick, knows. In August, he spent more than a week at various military terminals along the east coast trying to get a hop back to Europe.
"I’ve flown Space-A several times with no problems, but on this trip, my timing was really bad," he laments.
Gerstner spent several days in Baltimore only to be bumped off every available flight to Incirlick. He finally gave up and drove to Andrews Air Force Base, hoping to catch a hop to Ramstein where he thought his chances of boarding another flight to Incirlick might improve. He made it to Germany the next day but not before his Space-A odyssey took nine days and cost about $800 in food, lodging and transportation.
"I have just one word of advice," Gerstner says, "flexibility… oh, and don’t travel in August when everybody is on leave!"
Paul and Connie Horst, civilians at Ramstein, suffered a similar experience. The couple flew Space-A to take their kids to college in the U.S. Getting there was no problem, Paul remembers, but the difficulties began when he tried hopping return flights to Ramstein in mid-August. All flights were full, many already loaded with duty passengers (who, according to well-established rules, take priority). He was bumped off so many flights that he eventually took extra days of leave to justify his stay. He finally made it aboard a Ramstein flight, but wife Connie stayed behind to fly later after the rush.
This is not unusual for the summer months, AMC officials admit. In Europe alone, more than 30,000 passengers flew Space-A in 2006, with the highest concentration during the summer months. The AMC website warns passengers to expect delays during the summer months and throughout the December-to-January holiday period.
The Secret To Space-A Success
Flexibility seems to be the secret to a successful Space-A experience. We learned that lesson as well, when all the return flights we wanted out of Charleston were completely full. Instead, we found a seat aboard a C-17 operated by the Air National Guard in Jackson, Miss. The flight included a one-night layover at Andrews, which added an unnecessary day of travel to our plans. But in keeping with the flexibility mindset, I called my cousin who lives near Andrews and we enjoyed a surprise visit.
Some clouds have silver linings. Fly Space-A and you might fly into a few of them!