Military Space-A flights were a major element of our strategy for saving money during our year of travel. We flew Space-A to Europe, Hawaii, Japan, and many places within the continental US. We estimate that we saved more than $15,000 by taking military flights. Overall, we had great experiences, and whenever it’s a viable option, Space-A is my preferred way to fly.
Talking with others about our travels, we were surprised to realize how few military folks know about flying Space-A, let alone have used it. Even those who knew it was an option were reluctant to give it a shot. They heard you have to wait around too much, the aircraft have too many maintenance issues, or the flights are canceled at the last minute.
The bottom line is yes, those things do happen. Flying Space-A requires patience and flexibility, and it’s not a good choice for all circumstances. But if you’ve flown a civilian airline lately, you know all those inconveniences happen with regular flights, too. The difference is, Space-A flights are free!
There are several other websites that explain in great detail how flying Space-A works, who can use the privilege, and lots of other information I won’t replicate here. Other than a summary of the basic steps in a Space-A journey, most of what you will find on Poppin’ Smoke are discussions of what the rules and processes mean in practice. You can also read a few tales about our experiences and some recommended strategies for having a successful journey when flying Space-A.
How Space-A Flights Work
Space-A flights are military operational flights that have extra seats. The military mission is the priority, and the Space-A passengers are essentially cargo. Eligible travelers may “hop” the flight (free of charge), but the system is based on priority.
Travelers are divided into six categories: 1 is the highest and 6 is the lowest. Military retirees are Category 6 (Cat 6). In other words, available seats on the aircraft are first offered to travelers in categories 5 or higher and any remaining seats can be used by Cat 6’s on a first come, first served basis. Priority for Cat 6’s is based on signup date, as discussed below.
A retiree and his or her dependents are authorized to fly Space-A. Ex-spouses or spouses of deceased retirees are not eligible, nor are the retiree’s parents, siblings, or any other family members who are not the retiree’s dependents. A retiree’s dependents cannot fly Space-A without their sponsor.
The Space-A Flying Process
Here is a simplified summary of the process of flying Space-A. For detailed travel instructions and links to the required forms, visit the Air Mobility Command website.
- Signup: Sign up with each passenger terminal from which you might originate travel (including your destination). With the exception of certain Navy bases, you can complete the process via e-mail. Priority within a Space-A category is based on sign-up date, so the earlier you sign up (maximum 60 days before your travel date at most locations, 45 days at some Navy locations), the better. SpaceA.net has detailed instructions related to signup. Be sure to retain and print copies of the e-mails you send. Even if you do not receive a reply, the e-mails serve as proof of your signup date. * * * For quick signup tips and examples specific to retirees, click here. * * *
- Flight Tracking: Track flights (also referred to as “missions”) from your desired departure base(s). Information about Space-A seats is available up to 72 hours before a flight. If you monitor flights out of your departure base for several weeks or months prior to travel, you may see patterns in how often there are missions to particular destinations and how many seats are generally available. The easiest way to track flights is using the base passenger terminal’s Facebook page.
- Check-In or “Marking Yourself Present:” Within 24 hours of your target flight’s Roll Call, go to the terminal and speak with a Passenger Specialist to mark yourself present. Bring a copy of your sign-up e-mail in case they can’t find you in their system. You must mark yourself present before the Roll Call starts. There is often a screen near the terminal desk that displays a list of passengers who are marked present and are “competing” for the flight. Make sure your name is on that list along with the accurate number of dependents traveling with you and your correct date of sign-up. If not, talk to the Passenger Specialist.
- Roll Call: At the designated Roll Call time, the Passenger Specialist announces how many Space-A seats are available for the flight and reads the names of the passengers selected. When they call your name, confirm with the Passenger Specialist that you and any dependents traveling with you are present. You will need to show your and your dependents’ military ID cards. You might go directly to luggage check, or they may check bags later. Either way, at the time of Roll Call, you should be in the terminal with all of your luggage. Don’t plan on waiting until after Roll Call to go back to your hotel or return your rental car, because you might not have time.
- Virtual Roll Call: Some passenger terminals have begun offering Virtual Roll Call (VRC) for select missions. In theory, having VRC means passengers do not have to be present at the terminal for Roll Call. When there is a VRC for a particular flight, that information is noted on the Facebook slide. With VRC, you must still go to the terminal within 24 hours of the Roll Call to mark yourself present (and verify that they have your e-mail address). About an hour before the in-person Roll Call, the terminal sends you a “Roll Call Notification” e-mail. If you don’t respond promptly, they take you out of the running. If you do respond, they eventually send you one of two e-mails: a “Flight Selection Notification” with instructions to go directly to the terminal to check your bags, or a “Non-Selection Notification,” which means you should activate Plan B (always have a Plan B when flying Space-A!). In our limited experiences with VRC, it has not worked quite as planned. We had to go to the terminal for Roll Call anyway. VRC is a relatively new process, so they may still be working out the kinks. In the meantime, showing up in person is the best way to ensure you don’t miss any communication.
- Bag Check: When it’s time to check bags, you, your dependents, and all of your luggage must be present. On most flights, each passenger can check two bags of up to 70 lbs each. On some smaller aircraft, weight limits may be as low as 30 lbs. The Air Mobility Command website has detailed information on baggage allowances. During baggage check, you can request a meal, (if meals are offered — usually a box lunch with sandwich, chips, cookie, and drink), which costs $5-$10, depending on the base. Once you’ve checked your bags, you are “manifested” on the flight. The Passenger Specialist will tell you the estimated boarding and departure times, but keep in mind that those times often change without notice, so stay in the terminal.
- Boarding: Once they announce boarding, all passengers go through security. Military passenger terminals follow TSA regulations, so you have the same restrictions for carry-on items as on civilian planes. You sit in a secure area of the terminal until the bus arrives to take you to the aircraft. Then you board the plane and select your seats (first come, first served).
- Flight: The flights are no-frills and there is no “in-flight service.” The crew provides earplugs, water, and sometimes chips or cookies, but you have to get those refreshments yourself. Depending on what type of aircraft you are in and how much space there is, you may be able to stretch out across a few seats or even sleep on the floor.
- Arriving at Your Destination: After landing, you take a bus back to the terminal, where you collect your checked bags. From there, you are on your own. Passenger terminals generally have information and phone numbers for local rental cars, base lodging, and other resources. You can also use UJ Space A Info to quickly search for local information related to any base in the world.
When (and When Not) to Fly Space-A
So now you know how Space-A flying works when all goes smoothly. Of course, it doesn’t always happen that way. There are many situations when flying Space-A is probably not the best option. If you are going on a short vacation (less than 2 weeks) with little flexibility or you are traveling during major holidays, relying on Space-A could be risky.
Many experienced Space-A travelers avoid flying Space-A during PCS season, particularly to OCONUS destinations. However, if you are traveling solo, you have a better chance of getting a seat, even during busy periods. Many other Space-A travelers are couples or families, and even if those groups are in a higher category, when there is only one seat left, a solo traveler will get it. Traveling light also increases your chances. Some flights have baggage weight restrictions that will take most other passengers out of the running.
You can take some of the risk out of flying Space-A and boost your chances of having a successful trip by following a few strategies and tips and monitoring the Facebook slides to make informed decisions about what flights are most promising.
Planning for Comfort
Knowing what to expect at the passenger terminal and on the planes can help you have a more comfortable journey.
Passenger terminals vary widely in terms of their hours, services available, and rules. Some have a USO, a snack bar, a children’s area, and showers, while others have little more than a check-in desk and a few chairs. SpaceA.net has information on specific services available at each terminal.
Most terminals discourage passengers from getting too comfortable and falling asleep. The chairs generally have fixed armrests that prevent you from stretching out across the seats. Also, there are often signs requesting that you not lie on the floor. I mention these details in case spending the night in the terminal was going to be your contingency plan. While it’s quite possible that you will spend the better part of a night in a terminal anyway, at least you know to be prepared with a good book!
I recommend saving the contact information for the passenger terminals you anticipate using so that you have it handy if you need to call or e-mail with questions.
Depending on the type of aircraft and how it’s configured, you have different considerations for comfort. If it’s a Patriot Express (a.k.a. a “rotator”), it’s simply a regular passenger plane. Most other Space-A flights will be “organic aircraft,” a.k.a. military planes. For all organic aircraft, two tips apply:
- Dress in layers. It can be very cold or very warm, depending on the type of aircraft, where you’re sitting, and pilot preference. I see many passengers (especially children) wearing shorts, but I don’t recommend it unless you have a pair of sweatpants handy.
- Bring hand wipes. The lavatory sinks generally don’t have running water. Instead, there is a pile of antiseptic wipes, but often not enough to last for the entire flight.
While you could fly on one of more than a dozen different types of aircraft, the ones below are the most common:
C-5: This is the largest aircraft in the Air Force. If the Facebook slide indicates there are 73 seats available, the aircraft is probably a C-5. Seats are configured just like a commercial airplane, but they face the rear of the aircraft and you have more legroom. If the plane isn’t crowded and you are lucky enough to have your own row, you can stretch out (unlike in the passenger terminals, you can raise the armrests!).
C-17: The first time we flew a C-17, all passengers were sitting in jump seats along the sides of the aircraft (facing the middle). With this configuration, you can lie down after the plane reaches altitude if there is room on the floor. On our first flight to Germany we didn’t plan ahead and had to sleep on a wool blanket provided by the crew (it was still more comfortable than sitting in the economy section of a commercial flight).
The next time we flew a C-17 with that configuration, we were prepared with a couple of blow-up rafts (the kind you use in a swimming pool). The rafts provided much more cushion than the wool blankets and were pretty inexpensive. Unfortunately, they were exhausting to blow up (especially at 30,000 feet!) and nearly impossible to drain and fold down to an easily-transportable size. Before our next Space-A flight, we plan to invest in a couple of good quality self-inflating mattresses.
We also flew a C-17 configured with regular passenger seats filling most of the bay. Some passengers chose to sit along the sides anyway, but we preferred real seats to jump seats. With that configuration, there was very little space to lie on the floor.
C-130: This a prop plane, so it is noisier, slower, and bumpier than a C-17. It has the same open bay configuration with web seating along the sides. If there is room on the floor, you can lie down like on a C-17. The baggage weight limit may be only 40 lbs for your checked bag and 10 lbs for your carry-on.
KC-10/KC-135: These are tankers used to fuel jets while in the air. On at least two occasions, our aircraft was going to perform that mission with Space-A passengers aboard, but for various reasons they didn’t end up doing it. The KC-10 usually has regular airline seats and about twice the passenger capacity as the KC-135. The latter generally has web seating along the sides of the aircraft.