By Ms. Sarah J Schmidt (IMCOM)May 3, 2010
SCHINNEN, The Netherlands - If your need for fast food and a Wal-mart shopping spree means it's time for a trip home, but the price of airfare makes it impossible, don't despair. There is another option: Space-A flights.
Space-A refers to seats aboard military aircraft that are offered on a "space available" basis to active duty personnel, family members and retirees 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, based at Scott Air Force Base, manages the Air Force's worldwide airlift operations, including the Space-A program. AMC describes Space-A travel as a privilege, not an entitlement. If you're looking for "entitlements" like guaranteed flights, first-class seating or frequent flyer miles, then Space-A is definitely not for you. If you align expectations to the "privilege" way of thinking, then Space-A offers great adventures.
WHAT TO EXPECT ONBOARD
In most cases, Space-A seats on military aircraft are free (some taxes may apply in certain locations), but few creature comforts are included. Space-A is not like flying Delta or Lufthansa. It's not even RyanAir. There is no beverage cart, no flight attendants in matching outfits, no chatty announcements from the flight deck. There's no in-flight magazine in the seat pocket. There's probably not a seat pocket. There may not be anything more than nylon jump seat.
But remember, you're flying for free. You may need to repeat that to yourself throughout the trip. If, however, you're lucky enough to snag a seat onboard one of the rotator flights leaving Germany for various points along the East coast, you'll be flying a commercial jet contracted to fly Soldiers and Airmen to/from deployments downrange. These are just like any other commercial aircraft with all the usual amenities.
If you're not on a rotator, then plan for minimal comforts. It's noisy, so bring earplugs or wear ear phones. Also bring a pillow, plus a sleeping bag or blanket, and 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 flight is airborne, you'll notice the experienced Space-A flyers start staking out their territory around cargo pallets in the back of the plane. They roll out sleeping bags atop cushion mats and ergonomic pillows, then doze off for hours. With earplugs firmly in place, you're guaranteed several hours of blissful sleep - something that's virtually impossible to achieve sitting upright on a commercial transatlantic flight. Never mind the lack of creature comforts; the floor space for sleeping on Space-A flights is a real luxury; certainly a plus for international travel.
PACK A LUNCH
Although some flights allow you to pre-order boxed meals, others do not, but you're allowed to bring food onboard. Luggage restrictions on Space-A flights are more travel-friendly than commercial flights, so it may be possible for you to bring a cooler with snacks and sandwiches for a long flight. Check with the terminal first. If you're flying internationally, prepare to consume or dispose of all fruits and meats before landing so customs agents don't seize your cooler upon arrival.
Due to security concerns, Space-A flyers can't take more than one-ounce of liquids onboard, but most passenger terminals have vending machines or snack bars where you can purchase drinks after passing through security checkpoints.
Passengers are generally permitted one hand-carried item and two checked bags. The cooler counts as hand-carried. However, the rules for checked luggage are less restrictive than commercial rules, allowing each piece to weigh up to 70 pounds.
Another big plus: families can pool their weight allowance. For instance, a family of four could check up to 560 pounds of luggage. Baggage weight is sometimes limited, depending on the aircraft, so check with the passenger terminal to be sure.
WHERE TO GET THE FACTS
Every passenger terminal has its own "AMC Gram," a fact sheet that provides valuable travel tips for planning ahead. It's good to know, for example, that the shuttle bus to Aviano's passenger terminal only runs two times a day from base billeting, or that Space-A flyers who use the long-term parking garage at the Ramstein passenger terminal must obtain a special permit upon check-in or risk having their cars towed while they're away.
AMC makes all this info easily accessible on its website. Several "unofficial" sites operated by retirees and Space-A aficionados also provide loads of helpful tips and info with personal insights and local color that you'll never find in travel guides.
Of course, the biggest benefit of flying Space-A is the cost savings. Army retiree, Leroy Lee, who now works as a USAG Schinnen Army Civilian, estimates that he's saved thousands of dollars flying Space-A while living in Europe. On two occasions, he flew with his wife and children to visit his mother in the states when he otherwise would not have afforded the trip for the whole family.
"We would've probably bought a ticket for me to go, but I would've had to leave my wife and kids at home during a critical family time," Lee said.
The Lee family had enjoyed such good Space-A experiences that they decided to fly home again this past Christmas. Getting out of Ramstein was no problem, but their luck evaporated on the return flight.
They were repeatedly bumped off Space-A flights at McChord, Dover and Andrews by other Space-A flyers with higher eligibility. After four days of delay, they decided to shell out the cash to buy one-way tickets to Europe.
Lee's experience is not unusual. AMC personnel interviewed for this article at five different terminals all said the same thing: Space-A passengers should expect delays during the summer and throughout the December-to-January holiday period. Be prepared with a back-up travel plan (including funds for commercial tickets) in case you do not make it onboard a Space-A flight.
WHO GETS PRIORITY
Since Space-A is only available to those who qualify for one of six categories of eligibility, there's never a guarantee that you'll actually get a flight. A higher category of eligibility improves your chances, but it all depends on how many spaces a particular aircraft has available at any given time.
For example, Lee qualifies for Category VI as a retiree. However, an active duty military member on leave qualifies for Category III and bumps everybody in the lower three categories.
Category V is particularly dicey because it includes "unaccompanied command-sponsored dependents" (a.k.a. military spouses and family members traveling without their military sponsor). While this offers a great travel opportunity for spouses, keep in mind that your eligibility is actually two categories higher if you travel with your military sponsor.
Additional paperwork is also required to prove your command-sponsored status. Find sample forms on the Ramstein fact sheet, available at the AMC website.
Despite the hoops and hurdles, the Lee family thinks Space-A is the best way to fly.
"You certainly can't beat the price," Lee joked, "but I have just one word of advice about flying Space-A: flexibility... and don't travel during the holidays when everybody is on leave."
SPACE-A TERMINALS NEAREST TO THE BENELUX:
Spangdahlem Air Force Base, Germany (DSN 452-8860; commercial (49) 6565-61-8860)
- frequent rotator flights to Baltimore
- military flights to Charlston, Dover and McGuire
Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany (DSN 479-4440; commercial (49) 6371-46-4440)
- frequent rotator flights to Baltimore & east coast
- military flights to multiple points in Europe, Asia & U.S.