We've all heard the stories of the people who travel the world for free on "Space A" or "Space Available" travel. I've heard many of these stories, too, but have yet to actually meet anyone who actually uses Space A. Are these urban legends or is "Space A" a tangible benefit that can be used productively by those in the know? As it turns out, if you know the "Space A" kabuki dance and have time on your hands, you might just be able to use this valuable benefit to stretch your vacation dollars.
The most significant complication to utilizing Space A is that here is no single flight booking engine like Expedia or Orbitz that shows flight schedules for military flights, requiring Space A travelers to do the research themselves. In addition, Space A passengers are never guaranteed a seat - priority is always given to operational requirements, military personnel under orders, etc. Space A travelers often spend a great deal of time in terminals waiting to see if they can get on the flight manifest. Finally, it is very difficult to travel with family - traveling Space A often means hitching a ride on aircraft not designed for passengers (read: cold, noisy, and no in-flight movie). For these reasons, Space A is often only appropriate for people with a bit of time on their hands and a penchant for adventure.
One of the most significant changes to the Space A program is the recent decision by Air Mobility Command to dramatically scale back the Patriot Express program - a regular favorite of Space A travelers. Patriot Express, the military's chartered air service responsible for transporting servicemembers to/from overseas duty, has been providing regular flights to Europe since the 1960s. Starting next year, the program will significantly reduce the number of flights to Europe and close all U.S. gateways, except BWI.
So, you still want to give it a try? Great. The first thing to understand is your eligibility and your Space A category. Space A is only available to personnel with a some type of Department of Defense or Uniformed Services (PHS) ID card. Unfortunately, Veterans (non-retirees) are not eligible to use Space A. Under an innovative new AMC test program, Family members, in the company of their sponsors, can fly within stateside locations.
Your Space A category is essentially your priority on the flight. If there is room on a qualifying Space A flight, base operations will assign the seats in order of category - with Category 1 (emergency leave) all the way up to the lowest priority, Category 6 (reserve/guard, retired, dependents, ROTC, etc). There are a host of nuances to assigning categories and you should certainly research your unique circumstance.
Documentation & Immigration
All Space A passengers need appropriate documentation prior to travel. The most commonly required documents include ID cards, leave documents (as necessary), passports (with visas, as appropriate), and immunization records. While travelers can generally depart the CONUS from both civilian and military terminals, reentry into the United States for non-active duty personnel (those traveling on passports) may require that the reentry terminal have appropriate immigration facilities, which generally means returning to a commercial gateway (civilian airport).
Choosing a Gateway
Not surprisingly, military airfields often have more Space A flights than commercial airport gateways. Although there are a large number of potential departure terminals, some of the best Space A hubs are Dover AFB, Travis AFB, Norfolk NS, BWI, Rhein Main, and RAF Mildenhall.
Getting on the List
Once you've got a gateway selected, travelers must register for at the terminal's Passenger Service Centers (in person, by email or fax). In most cases, you should be prepared to provide copies of all travel documents. During registration, you will be asked to select up to 5 destination countries - and may opt for one of the 5 to be "All," allowing you the option of flying to some unique and, potentially, unexpected destinations. Passengers remain on the registration list for up to 60 days or until selected for travel. You should be ready-to-go and in the vicinity of the terminal during the manifesting "Show Time" - often 2 hours prior to departure. Official Space A information (including key phone numbers, email addresses, and regulations) can be found on the web at http://public.amc.af.mil/SPACEA/spacea.htm.
Although not appropriate for everyone, Space A is an often-underutilized benefit that can open up the world to even the most frugal travelers. If you subscribe to the old adage that "the journey is more important than the destination" - the adventure of Space A may be for you.
Christopher Michel is CEO of Military.com, the nation's
largest military membership organization. Military.com
connects over 3 million members to the lifelong
benefits of military service. Members trust Military.com
for career, education and financial services. Prior
to founding Military.com, Chris served as a Naval
Flight Officer in the United States Navy. While
on active duty, Chris flew as a P-3 Navigator, Tactical
Coordinator and Mission Commander in support of
maritime interdiction operations in the Red Sea,
NATO enforcement operations in the Adriatic, and
counter-narcotics missions in Central America. Following
his operational tour, Chris worked in the Pentagon
as Aide to the Chief of the Naval Reserve. He holds
degrees from the University of Illinois and Harvard