Space A Insights

"Mommy, I want to go to the airport."

Wow. We have only been home for a week, and my three-year old son is ready to jump onto another plane. Granted it does seem like I've raised my children to be jet-setters. Since the first of this year, we have flown 11 times (not including all the legs of the flights), and 4 of them were on military aircrafts.

I have been meaning to write about my experience with "catching a hop" AKA Space Available (Space A) for some time now (since last year), but, like other things, I keep putting it off. For those who don't know what Space A is, it's a privilege provided to servicemembers, retirees and their families. After cargo and people on official government business have been accommodated, those traveling for non-official purposes can board the plane as passengers on a space-available basis at little to no cost. It is a great benefit, especially when you are stationed overseas, and flight tickets to visit family are at ridiculous prices. But with every benefit, there is frustration a cost, and here's what I've learned from flying (and not flying) with Space A:

1) Time or Money?
I was talking with my girlfriend the other day who has hopped more than me, and we both agreed. When it really comes down to whether or not you want to "fly" Space-A, it's either your time or money. Would you rather have the piece of mind by paying for a ticket at $1,500 and know that you're on a flight, or would you rather chance it by spending the time to pack, call and visit the terminal (perhaps for multiple days in a row) before you catch a hop?

2) Every passenger terminal handles procedures differently.
My first terminal experience passed out monthly schedules and displayed flights on a TV channel, which made it easy for me to plan my trip. I quickly found out that not every terminal was this considerate to passengers. In fact, when I asked for a schedule at Travis, the representative looked at me like I was crazy. I had to call every day to find the flights for the next 48 hours, and they weren't always accurate.

3) Sign up as EARLY as possible.
Find out what the terminal's policies are—some let you sign up 60 days in advance while others are only 30 days. After you're ranked by category, you're ranked by sign-up date. The earlier you sign up, the higher your name is on the list and possibility to get onto the flight.

4) Ask for manifestation to your final destination.
We were trying to reach Yokota, but the flight from Seattle stopped at Osan. A flight was scheduled to fly from Osan to Yokota in a few days. A representative told us that we weren't allowed to keep our original sign-up date because our boarding pass had Osan marked as our final destination, so we had to resign up for Yokota. After a few arguments and speaking to different representatives, we were able to keep our original sign-up date from Seattle. THIS was a good move because there were about 100 people trying to hop with only 50 available seats. Needless to say, we made the flight, and I don't like to wonder how it would have been if we had to use the resign-up date.

5) If you really want to get on a plane, live at the terminal.
Okay, I'm exaggerating, but be ready to be at the terminal with all of your bags packed when the terminal opens (if it's not operating 24 hours/day). I can't tell you how many times I've missed a flight because it wasn't on the schedule. This leads me to my next bullet...

6) "All flights are subject to change without notice."
They love that disclaimer. I hate it. Sure I can call every night before I go to bed and every time I wake up on the day I want to fly, but information isn't always accurate. I once called 4 hours before show time and received confirmation that the flight was leaving (it was a two-hour drive to the base). When I was 30 minutes away from the base, I called again; the flight was cancelled, and no more flights were scheduled for the day. I turned around and headed to my mother-in-law's house. I called the terminal later for the next day's flights and found out that there was a flight leaving that evening, but roll call was in one hour. Like I said earlier, LIVE at the terminal.

7) Take the first available flight—even if isn't the most convenient.
There were two flights "scheduled" to leave for the US: one was a C-5 with 3 stops (Kadena, Anderson & Hickham) while the other was a C-5 with two stops (Elmendorf & Travis). The Hickham flight was scheduled to leave earlier, but I didn't really want to chance getting stuck in Okinawa or Guam (the C-5 has a horrible track record of breaking down for a few days) with two children. Well, when we arrived for the Travis flight, we found out that the earlier flight had changed its route, and it had flown directly to Travis. To top it off, the second plane was broken and would not be leaving that day.

8) Have a contingency plan.
I was a bridesmaid in my friend's wedding last year. It was scheduled on Labor Day weekend, and I wasn't sure whether or not I should hop since 1) it was still during the summer months, and 2) many people were having difficulty catching a hop. I purchased a fully-refundable flight tickets (with a military discount) that could be cancelled up to 4 hours before the flight. I decided we would try to hop to the States, and if we were successful, then I would cancel our commercial tickets. Hopping went really well at first—we made it all the way onto the C-5—kids buckled, treats out, one down for a nap. It wasn't until half an hour of sitting in the plane that they finally asked all passengers to exit the plane because it was broken. Awesome. After 4 days of trying to hop onto this broken plane, we decided to just take the commercial plane. Although the plane did leave straight for Travis the next day, it was still the best choice for us since I had a dress rehearsal and wedding to attend. I'm so glad that I bought those tickets when they were still affordable ($1,200 for all 3 of us) instead of $5,000 per ticket at last-minute. (I have to make myself feel better somehow.)

Even with all the hassle, I still like hopping—it's a win-win situation for everyone (if you do get on it) as the military isn't wasting fuel on an empty plane and you're saving money (or as how I like to look at it, now able to transfer it to another part of my trip such as lodging and shopping). Plus, it really does take you to some amazing places. From it, I've hopped to California, Hawaii, Korea, Singapore, and, of course, Japan.

Was there something I missed? What do you wish someone told you before you embarked on this hopping experience?


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