If you are a military service member, dependent, or retired service member, Space-Available (Space-A) travel could be an option for you. There are a few factors that come into play when attempting to travel Space-A. Don’t worry, curious travelers, we’ll cover all the factors.
Seats are given away in category order, from 1 (highest priority) to 5 (lowest priority). If you are traveling with your service member, you’re a category 3. If you’re traveling alone or with your children and no service member, then you are a category 4. This will be one of the biggest deciding factors as to whether or not you get a seat on the aircraft.
Equally important, having the right documentation with you is crucial to even begin registration with the passenger terminal. The two biggest items are a command letter and a copy of your service member’s orders. Depending on the terminal, you can register via email, but in-person is always best.
Flying with Your Service Member
If you are planning a little leave time as a full family unit, the key to getting on a flight before everyone else waiting in line is your leave date!
This is best described with a little anecdote. Sponsor One (Fred) put in his leave Jan. 1-30, Sponsor Two (Kim) put in her leave Jan. 3-Feb. 3. Both sponsors are the same rank, but Fred will be above Kim on the list because his leave starts first.
A little trick we picked up in Stuttgart, Germany is that service members can request leave for — say — January 1-30, with the understanding that they would not actually check out for leave until the 13th. Therefore, when they get to the passenger terminal they were the highest priority category 3 because their leave started 13 days prior.
What to Expect
In some ways, flying Space-A is so similar to flying commercial (the bag check-in process, meals on board, etc). In other ways, it is insanely different. All people attempting to get on the plane must be present for “Roll Call,” which happens much earlier than the scheduled flight.
Also, unlike the airlines, when flying on military aircraft, or military-chartered aircraft, planes can leave whenever they want, and it is usually not on time. For those of you planning your child’s nap around flight times, don’t even bother.
Depending on what kind of aircraft you get assigned to, your experience will differ drastically. There are two main options. One of them is flying in the back of a cargo plane, like a C-17 or C-130. Some people prefer this because there’s more room to move around and more space for kids, but ear protection is a must. The second option is a chartered military airline. This is essentially a standard commercial aircraft with flight attendants and food — it’s just on contract with the military. This is the more comfortable option, especially for long distances.
Domestic vs. International
If you are looking for cheap flights over the Atlantic Ocean, your best terminal options are:
- Charleston, South Carolina
- Norfolk, Virginia
- Baltimore, Maryland
These three terminals offer the majority of overseas flights for Space-A.
If you are just looking to get around the U.S. via Space-A, you have significantly more options. All of the Air Force Bases scattered across the country offer regular flights from state to state and coast to coast. Smaller bases also hold the best chance of getting on the roster. There are fewer people competing for a seat. Remember, there are restrictions on where and when you can travel when you are without your sponsor.
The Biggest Difference is the Most Frustrating
When planning a Space-A flight — well there really isn’t any planning involved — the expected available seats are usually released the day before. So, you can plan your trip all you want, but there may be no available seats when you are ready to fly out. Let’s say you are trying to fly from Andrews Air Force Base to Texas. You know there is a flight leaving on Wednesday. Tuesday afternoon comes around. Your bags are packed, and they release the information (via the terminal’s Facebook page). They have five available seats. You are at the airport the next morning, you are ninth on the list. You wait around to see if others show that are ahead of you on the list. They don’t show, you get on.
Take the same scenario, except you get to the airport and wait two hours before they announce that they are taking more crew and those five seats are no longer available.
Take the same scenario again, except you show up and so do the eight people who are higher in priority. You do not get on the flight.
The tricky thing with Space-A is that the situation could go any way imaginable, and flexibility is key. You can’t really make plans around Space-A flights unless you are very high ranking. If Space-A is the way you want to go, just know it may take one attempt to get on the flight you want, or it may take two weeks. There’s no way to know.
The Space-A program is a wonderful option for those who have the flexibility. It definitely is not for everyone, but if you are not in a hurry, you can fly for less than $30 per person essentially anywhere in the world where there is a military presence. Flights are not free, but as close as it gets with seats costing between $17 to $30, depending on the aircraft. Compared to hundreds or even thousands of dollars per seat, it is a wonderful opportunity to see areas that you otherwise couldn’t afford.
It is important to keep in mind that it is a military program, you cannot expect the commercial experience, but given enough time and flexibility your patience will pay off.
Want more information on one of the biggest, most consistent military flights? Find out What to Expect on the Patriot Express.
Photo Credits: Lydia Bradbury | Pixabay