By Petty Officer 2nd Class David R. Marin
Looking out onto the different cumulus, cirrus, and stratus clouds I can’t help but chuckle at my luck. Never did I think I would be flying in a private jet to Miami while on leave – for free. If it wasn’t for a little know-how and words of wisdom from Roy Deal, I may have never been there.
WHERE TO BEGIN?
When I first started looking into Space-A, I was slightly overwhelmed with the amount of information available. I stumbled upon a Facebook group called Space-A Travelers of USA. At first glance, this page seemed difficult to understand, but one thing I noticed was many posts by Roy G. Deal, so I contacted him.
Almost immediately, and repeated again during our conversation, Deal emphasized how one has to do a lot of research to understand the full potential, and how to properly use Space-A.
“Most people post on the Space-A [Travelers of the USA] Facebook page asking, ‘Just give me all the information right now,’” said Deal, an administrator for the page. “These people want [someone] to hand [all their Space-A knowledge] to them, or open their head and pour it in, and you just can’t do it. You have to put the time in and do it yourself.”
I did some research, but I’ll admit, I told him I was doing a story and tried my very best to get him to just pass me all his knowledge during our hour-and-a-half conversation.
Throughout our conversation and my research, I learned that many of the official Space-A Facebook pages fall under the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command. Although it may seem like the AMC is in charge of Space-A, because of all the links, they ultimately don’t run the program.
“The Space-A program belongs to the Department of Defense,” said Mark Voorhis, chief of the Civic Outreach Division of AMC headquarters public affairs. “In essence, eligible passengers are authorized to occupy DoD aircraft seats that are surplus after all space-required passengers have been accommodated. Space-Available travel is allowed on a non-interference basis only.”
Technically speaking, any military flight or flight contracted by the military has the potential of allowing Space-A travelers aboard if there is room.
DOING YOUR HOMEWORK
The AMC travel site, to me, is the best source for all things Space-A. Their site is where you can learn the ins and outs of official policies. Additionally, in the sidebar on the right, which airfields post their schedule 72 hours ahead of time.
Those sites are a goldmine. Your homework begins with looking into the airports out of which you are willing to fly.
I’m really lucky. Baltimore is basically the epicenter of the most hotspots regarding where to fly to. Major hubs in this area are Joint Base Andrews, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Dover Air Force Base, and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. Another option is Baltimore/Washington International Airport — yes, a commercial airport you can use to fly aboard commercial planes.
You should study the schedules for the airfields you are considering for your departure well in advance. That means checking what flights are listed, how often they occur, and whether or not they are often canceled.
Because of time constraints, I studied these locations for about a week — looking at where they fly to and how often.
Funny enough, the most frequent and seemingly available flights were to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Aviano AB in Italy, the Lajes AB Azores, Portugal, and Thule AB Greenland, all of which I couldn’t travel to on such short notice. For trips overseas, one needs time to ensure his or her passport is ready, and command approval paperwork is complete.
Looking a little further I noticed somewhat frequent flights to California, specifically Travis Air Force Base, and to Joint Base Lewis-McChord just south of Seattle — both locations I’d like to visit again. I also noticed a few flights to Florida. Most of my family is in Florida, so if possible, I wanted to head there.
Looking at the scheduled flights for the next 72 hours, a flight leaving Andrews AFB to Miami with a handful of seats flying caught my eye. With a listed commercial destination, that one seemed odd enough; I thought it would have little chance of being canceled.
The next bit of homework is to study the frequency of flights back to the airfields near home; from the place you fly into, or somewhere near there.
Not being able to see the schedule that far ahead of time I studied the AMC Facebook sites for MacDill AFB, Patrick AFB and Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida. I searched these sites for flights that I could most likely count on for a trip back from Florida to the Mid-Atlantic. I found one with a very high likelihood of occurring from Jacksonville to Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, as a last resort.
My initial plan was to head wherever I could go using Space-A within the beginning part of my two weeks of leave and return within a day or two while knowing I had an additional week to figure out other plans if I ran into any issues.
The next major point to think about is that it is the servicemember’s responsibility to return to their unit when their leave expires. If a Space-A flight has a change to the destination, departure time — or if it’s canceled — it is on the member to get home, even if it means paying for a commercial flight out-of-pocket.
“The biggest problem I see with active duty members is for them to allow enough time for their return,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Watson, passenger services supervisor at Andrews AFB. “It’s more about the return trip, not knowing exactly what flights are going to be at your destination returning back to Andrews. Not every flight departing Andrews returns to Andrews from where you are getting off.”
So with my homework done, I made my decision and headed to Andrews AFB to try to hop a flight to Miami.
Most of us in the military have heard the saying, “Hurry up and wait.” With Space-A travel, the same mentality applies — the mentality that brings forth a feeling that we are rushed, expected to be ready and to do so early, all to just sit and wait. All too often it’s for something that ends up being delayed, or worse — canceled.
Another major point Deal made was allowing enough time to arrive early, in case the flight left early, or to be one of the first people on the waiting list. He suggested being at the terminal two to three hours before roll call or what is sometimes called show time.
Deal added active duty members should try to sign up for the airport(s) from which they wish to fly at one minute after midnight, the day their leave starts — in person if possible, or online if necessary.
0600 – REVEILLE
I had an approximate hour and a half drive, so I woke up with enough time to drive to Andrews AFB while giving myself a buffer to find the terminal and be sure to park in the correct location.
Sometimes your car may be moved for you if you park in the wrong place.
0800 – ARRIVAL
Taking Deal’s advice, I arrived at around 8 a.m., several hours before roll call.
The terminal was empty. I felt good, as there were no other people looking to capitalize on this flight with very few seats to Miami. As soon as I went to the counter to check in, the attendant informed me that the Space-A seats had been removed and weren’t open to Space-A travelers.
Immediately I recalled Deal saying, “Another rule of thumb is if you’re standing there and it looks as though you’re not gonna get on that plane, do not leave that terminal until you see the wheels up because a lot of times there will be last-minute changes. There’s been a lot of cases where the old-timers who know that rule get on because the people ahead of them on the list leave before the plane takes off.”
Having planned for such an event, I mentioned that I would still like to be placed on the list and that I will stick around for a while. What else would I be doing for the day?
One thing to keep in mind is that some airfields have a United Service Organization on site, as does Andrews AFB.
1100 – ROLL CALL
Several hours later I hear my name called. Surprised, I went to the counter thinking I’m going to be the recipient of bad news, but instead I’m told to check my bag and go through security.
Then it gets even better, they shuttle me to a Gulfstream 3 — a jet used to shuttle VIPs from or to the D.C. area.
I couldn’t believe my luck.
The crew was deadheading, a term meaning they were going to fly with only the crew aboard, to Miami to pick up a VIP. I just happened to be there to ask for an available seat, so there I was.
As a side note, when traveling as a family, your family holds the same category as you do, so unless there are fewer seats available than family members, you won’t be split up.
Luck was on my side, or so I thought, but I was about to learn the true reason why being ‘Semper Gumby’ was so important.
During the hour after boarding, being briefed and settling down, I heard maintenance crews talking about a mechanical issue and their options.
1237 – BROKEN PLANE
I was asked to disembark while the crew decided if they would wait to fix the plane or decide to take a different one. Still confident on flying, I went back to the terminal and talked with Watson some more.
He told me he used to be stationed at Ramstein AFB but has never used Space-A travel. When I asked him why, he said that he’d been interested, but his wife is not for it.
“She’s a type A personality,” added Watson. “The kind of type A that has to have a schedule for her scheduling.”
We laughed then agreed that certain people just can’t seem to handle the uncertainty of Space-A travel.
Soon thereafter, another obstacle: I’m told the flight is being postponed until midnight. Now it was approximately 1315, I had been at Andrews for five hours and would have to wait another 11 hours for the flight.
1319 – 11-HOUR DELAY
Knowing that I wasn’t expected anywhere, I didn’t flinch, and I said I’d stick around, and before I knew it, plans changed again.
1418 – BACK ON
By 1430 I was headed to a different plane, although still a G3, and soon on my way to Miami.
1517 – TAKEOFF
1800 – ARRIVAL IN MIAMI
Part one was complete — now to find my way home. Remember, it’s on the member to find his or her own way home.
I knew I had time, but I really wanted to return to Andrews within my estimated two-day timeframe.
“You’ll get to know a lot of nice people who would be glad to help a service member,” said Deal. “You don’t go up there and demand. You have to show a lot of respect.”
I know that many flights and airfields don’t fall under AMC and don’t list their 72-hour schedule on the internet. I called and checked every military air installation in Florida even though airfields are under no obligation to disclose their schedules. I positioned myself in Naples, Florida ready to drive to the location where I thought would be my best chance for a flight home.
I found out about a chartered flight scheduled for Friday to transport approximately 110 people to Andrews from Key West, Florida with 20 open seats, but were not available for Space-A fliers.
Remember, any military flight, including those chartered by the military, are available for Space-A travel, but not guaranteed.
A flight from Jacksonville, Florida was as close to a sure thing one could have with Space-A, but it would mean finding my way home from Norfolk, Virginia to Baltimore, a drive that can last more than four hours due to traffic.
Thinking about another of Deal’s gems, he said to be kind and it doesn’t hurt to ask, so I took a gamble and headed to Key West.
An additional suggestion is to look into and learn about military lodging. I stayed at the Navy Gateway at the Key West Naval Air Station for $65 — a great deal for the Key West area.
0700 – REVEILLE
The next morning I grabbed breakfast, returned the rental car to Key West International Airport and took a taxi to Naval Air Station Key West.
Here’ s yet another learning opportunity: Not every military base allows taxis to enter due to security restrictions, and some only allow certain companies. I learned this lesson the hard way and walked through the gate and to the terminal in some 82-degree weather with bags in hand, all the while knowing “no seats are being offered to Space-A travelers.”
1030 – ARRIVAL TO TERMINAL
I showed up to the counter, and sure enough, I was told there weren’t any seats cleared for Space-A travel.
I smiled, I said I knew, but I thought I’d give it a try.
1150 – HOPE
Soon after, a petty officer tells me that oh-so-familiar phrase, “It doesn’t hurt to ask.” So I stuck around, asked to speak with the chief in charge of the terminal, who said it would be up to the pilots if they wanted to allow me on the flight.
1247 – ALMOST ON
I waited and made the effort to meet the captain and asked if he could find it in his heart to allow me on the flight. A prior Air Force pilot, the quick-witted captain knew all about Space-A travel. He remarked that as long as the military was OK with it, he would have no problem allowing me to join. He called his superiors and asked for approval. He then turned to me and said he was going to work his darnedest to not take off without me.
So the clouds parted again.
1309 – A FEW MORE HURDLES
There were a couple of other little hoops to jump. I needed to talk to Maj. Gibson to get on the manifest. He said that, yes I was allowed to fly with them, but that I would need to earn my spot by speaking with Navy Rear Adm. Martha Herb, the director of the Inter-American Defense College.
The college had chartered the flight for a return to D.C. after a field trip and now, to earn my seat, she wanted to know my story.
So I began, “I have this assignment to travel using Space-A … ”
1327 – TAKEOFF
Again, the outcome of my first Space-A trip was atypical, there are few airports — Baltimore Washington International and Seattle Tacoma International — and Space-A flights that you will fly aboard a commercial airliner. Most Space-A flights are aboard military planes.
1623 – MISSION COMPLETE
Space-A travel is very time-consuming — from all the research it takes to learn about the basics, to the planning, to getting there, waiting and possibly being stalled or canceled. All these factors on top of the fact it is on the member to ensure they return before their leave is up can make it seem as though it is not worth the hassle. However, if you can bring a laid-back attitude, you can enjoy the downtime, travels and changes that may come with situations beyond your control. By being prepared, remaining flexible, being nice and making the best of every situation, service members can take advantage of a great program to see much of the world for very little cost.
DISCLAIMER: This article is meant to assist military personnel, retirees, and their family members in understanding the potential of the Space Available travel program. A program that allows veterans to fly aboard military flights around the world. That being said, the outcome of my first trip using Space-A was atypical.