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Adventures in 'Space-A': the Patriot Express

Osan passengers board a Patriot Express flight June 8, 2010. PE flights often have Space-Available seats after official duty passengers and cargo have been accommodated. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Burks)

Osan passengers board a Patriot Express flight June 8, 2010. PE flights often have Space-Available seats after official duty passengers and cargo have been accommodated. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Burks)

Osan passengers process through the passenger terminal prior to boarding a Patriot Express flight June 8. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Burks)

Osan passengers process through the passenger terminal prior to boarding a Patriot Express flight June 8. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Burks)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- It was just before 6 a.m. June 8 when I arrived at the Osan passenger terminal to "try out" the Patriot Express during my mid-tour leave. I'd heard horror stories from servicemembers on their second or third tour here who had taken the "old" PE before service was halted in 2005 - tales detailing hours of "hurry up and wait," cramped seats and overbooked aircraft full of babies crying non-stop for the entire trans-oceanic flight. But on the other hand, I'd flown on Space Available, or "Space-A", flights before - while it can definitely be an adventure, my overall experiences had been very positive. So with the mindset of, "As long as I get a seat, I'll be happy," I walked into the terminal.

This optimism immediately took a hit as I passed through the doors to find standing room only - the terminal was completely full, all seats occupied by duty passengers with confirmed reservations. And yes, every family seemed to have brought along at least one infant who was already crying. "Great ... the critics were right," I thought.

My prospects did not improve with the announcement that there were only 24 Space-A seats manifested through to Seattle, my mid-tour destination. 45 seats to Misawa Air Base, Japan, were available, but I wasn't taking enough leave to go there and then try to catch a different flight back to the United States. At this point it looked like I might have to come back Thursday to try and catch the Osan - Yokota - Seattle PE flight, purchase an expensive commercial airline ticket, or cancel my leave. I was not expecting to hear my name called when the Space-A roll call began.

During roll call, a passenger terminal representative goes down a list of everyone who has signed up for Space-A travel on the flight, ranked according to the following categories:

Category I - Emergency leave
Category II - Active duty/Department of Defense civilian on leave with Environmental Morale Leave
Category III - Active duty on leave
Category IV - Command sponsored dependents with EML
Category V - Command sponsored/non-command sponsored dependents
Category VI - Retirees

Priority for Space-A seats is considered by category, then by date and time of sign-up within each category. Roll call continues until all names have been called, or when all seats are taken, whichever comes first. This was my fifth Space-A attempt, and I'd seen both happen - I made it to Italy on a flight with 150 available seats and just six other Space-A passengers, but didn't make the cut on a flight to Hawaii with 10 available seats and more than 60 Space-A hopefuls signed up.

This time, I was lucky - thanks largely to EML. In a nutshell, EML is a program that allows an individual to be upgraded one Space-A category. My EML authorization was completed the week prior, and it moved me from Category III to II. U.S. Pacific Command Instruction 0201.2 allows "no more than two unfunded EML trips per year for each eligible participant," so it's a great program to utilize here if you plan to fly Space-A on your mid-tour. For more details about EML, call the passenger terminal at 784-1854 or view the complete USPACOM instruction at www.osan.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-100331-003.pdf.

Relieved that I was going to have a seat on the flight after all, I didn't mind the remaining "hurry up and wait" prior to boarding. After my information had been confirmed by passenger terminal representatives, I moved into the check-in line, which now stretched back outside the building. I had packed light - no baggage to check - but all confirmed passengers went through the same processing. Bringing along a book, magazine, portable music player, or other form of personal entertainment is highly encouraged. By 9 a.m. I had made it through immigration, ticketing and security, and had a seat in the final waiting area. We boarded the aircraft at 9:25 a.m. and were airborne half an hour later. The total cost for my one-way ticket to Seattle was just under $30 - a "head-tax" fee to cover U.S. customs, federal inspections service and airport fees.

While the flight was almost completely booked, there were no issues with seating, the airline service, or anything else ... it was a typical international commercial flight, complete with meals, snacks, in-flight entertainment, and yes, crying babies. After a two-hour flight, we landed in Misawa for a layover to refuel and process their Seattle-bound passengers. After that, it was back in the air for the final nine-hour leg of the flight.

We touched down at the SeaTac International Airport around 7:30 a.m. June 8 back in the U.S. After de-boarding the plane, my decision to not check any luggage finally paid off - it took about ten minutes to clear customs and leave the airport.

A little less than three weeks later I was back at SeaTac, listening once again for my name during the Space-A roll call. This time, there was no problem procuring a seat - more than 150 were available, so everyone who signed up for the flight to Osan made it on the plane. The head-tax was also less expensive there ... about $15. This brought my total round-trip transportation cost to less than $45. All in all, my Patriot Express adventure had been a great experience, and had provided for a very inexpensive mid-tour.

For more information on the Patriot Express or Space-A travel, visit www.osan.af.mil/units/731stairmobilitysquadron.asp or call 784-1854.