Fantasizing about an exotic getaway but finding yourself strapped for cash? A "Space-A" seat aboard a military aircraft might be just your ticket to that vacation of your dreams.
Military-owned or -contracted aircraft fly to more places than many people realize, even to areas without U.S. military installations. When all mission-related passengers and cargo are accommodated, empty seats are offered up to eligible passengers on a space-available basis.
Last year, almost 215,000 service members, military family members and retirees took advantage of these "Space-A" flights all over the world, Air Force Master Sgt. Chris Alexander of Air Mobility Command's passenger policy and fleet management branch told American Forces Press Service.
They flew stateside at no cost on military planes and paid just $3.90 for a seat on a commercially chartered flight, Alexander reported. Those on international flights paid $17.20 or less to cover the cost of head taxes and federal inspection fees.
The travelers didn't require high-placed contacts or insider information -- just a basic understanding of how the system works.
In general, active-duty members and retirees and their families can fly Space-A between Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard facilities around the world. Flights also are available from the Seattle-Tacoma and Baltimore-Washington international airports.
Seats are offered to Space-A passengers only after all official-duty passengers and cargo have been accommodated, Alexander emphasized. Once those requirements are met, empty seats are offered to any qualified Space-A traveler. They may get a standard seat on a contracted commercial aircraft. But in other cases, it might be a backward-facing seat on a C-5 Galaxy aircraft or a jump seat on a C-130 Hercules cargo plane or KC-135 Stratotanker, or anything in between, Alexander said.
Passengers with a sense of adventure willing to try Space-A travel can sign up at the terminal they plan to fly from in person, online or by email or phone and stay on the roster for up to 60 days or, if applicable, until their military leave expires. It's possible to sign up for more than one destination, and at more than one terminal to improve the chances of getting a seat.
When passengers register, they get assigned to a passenger category that designates their place in "line" for a seat.
Space-A may be the one instance in which rank doesn't have its privilege. Seats are offered on a first-come, first-served basis, depending on a Space-A passenger's travel category and date and time they registered.
First priority, Category 1, goes to active-duty service members and their accompanying family members on unfunded emergency leave. Category 2 is assigned to those on environmental morale leave. Category 3 is for members and their families on ordinary leave or in a house-hunting status in conjunction with a permanent-change-of-station move. Category 4 goes to unaccompanied active-duty family members on environmental and morale leave. Category 5 is assigned to unaccompanied family members and service members on permissive temporary duty. Category 6 goes to military retirees, reservists, National Guard members and ROTC cadets.
Once official mission requirements are met, the likelihood that any would-be traveler gets a Space-A seat depends on a multitude of factors, Alexander said. Some air terminals have more flights than others, and larger commercially contracted aircraft tend to have more seats than cargo planes.
Timing is an important factor, too, he said. During the summer months, when many military families are making PCS moves or vacationing, Space-A seats fill up quickly. In Germany, for example, an aircraft with 100 or more available seats may fill up with travelers in Categories 1 to 3 alone, Alexander said.
Yet, Alexander said, retirees, who are in the lowest-priority group for Space-A seats, are big fans of the program and frequently get seat assignments. Many make a point of learning how the system works and avoid the busiest travel times so they are more likely to get a seat, he said.
AMC, which enforces the policies for the Space-A program, spells out the details of Space-A travel on its website. The site, including a downloadable Space-A handbook, is updated regularly.
The command's Facebook page provides travelers the most current information possible to help them plan better than ever before and to answer any questions they might have, Alexander said. The site offers 72-hour flight schedules that are updated daily.
One of its newest features is a Space A "roll call report." It provides information about seats provided to Space-A passengers within the previous 24 hours, including the latest date and time they signed up and which travel category they had been assigned.
AMC introduced the feature as part of its efforts to give travelers more predictability, but works closely with its operational security team to make sure it's not divulging too much information that could tip off potential adversaries, Alexander said.
Admittedly, Space-A travel can be a gamble. Many people have heard horror stories about seemingly endless waits for empty seats on outgoing flights, wasted leave days and destinations never reached. Passengers are cautioned to be prepared to buy a return flight on a commercial aircraft, as well as meals and lodging, if they find themselves unable to secure a Space-A flight home.
But trends show that many travelers are willing to sacrifice some of their leave for a free or almost-free seat on an unfilled military contract aircraft. Alexander attributes it to higher ticket prices on commercial aircraft and more awareness across the military about Space-A travel opportunities.
"People say, 'Wow, this is a great service, and I am going to use this, because it is one of my benefits,'" Alexander said. "As long as you have an open mind and you are educated on the processes and you have some time available, Space-A can definitely work well in your favor."