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Iwakuni, Misawa could lose Patriot Express

Mideast edition, Thursday, July 13, 2006

By VINCE LITTLE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 13, 2006

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Misawa Air Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni face losing Patriot Express service to their bases Oct. 1 unless more duty passengers start using the flights.

The planes will continue to stop weekly at Yokota Air Base on the round-trip flights from Seattle to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

A three-month trial period runs through August for Iwakuni and Misawa, where duty passengers must notch an 80 percent “cost-recovery” goal to retain the U.S. military’s chartered air service beyond the start of fiscal 2007, said Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Harris, U.S. Forces Japan logistics directorate operations branch chief.

That figure, at 38 percent for October-May, has climbed to 67 percent since June, as officials scrambled to fill the bird with personnel from those bases on permanent-change-of-station and temporary-duty orders.

“They’ve got a little ways to go to meet that goal,” Harris said Tuesday. “It’s hard because their populations are relatively small.”

He said raising the duty-passenger count is a necessary stipulation to preserve a huge space-available travel benefit for Japan’s and Okinawa’s U.S. military community. Space-available fliers headed to the States pay only a $24.50 transportation fee, or international “head tax.”

To cut costs, in October 2005, the Pentagon closed Los Angeles International Airport’s Patriot Express gateway and scaled back operations at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Transportation Command issued a one-year extension to Okinawa and a “use-it-or-lose-it” proposition in Japan to see if PCS and TDY use could be improved dramatically in both areas, Harris said. Air Mobility Command long has been the required first option within the Defense Travel Regulations, but the Patriot Express mandate received a renewed push from Navy, Marine, Army and Air Force leaders.

Harris said on Okinawa this year, the service has averaged enough duty passengers to account for 103 percent of cost recovery — and so TRANSCOM decided to again ramp up the Seattle-Tacoma gateway.

If viability rates are maintained, Friday flights to Okinawa will continue to stop at Yokota indefinitely to refuel, Harris said, because there’s no direct link between Seattle and Kadena.

He said retaining the Iwakuni and Misawa Patriot Express connections “is not hopeless.” Four additional Patriot Express flights a month now transit Yokota. Two stop at Iwakuni or Misawa; two others alternate between those bases. They arrive from Seattle on Wednesdays.

“Iwakuni needs it the most,” Harris said. “Without the Patriot, it’s a four- or five-hour bus ride to Kansai International Airport in Osaka. Misawa has another airport so our people can easily go to Haneda” in Tokyo, then take a bus to Narita. “But that makes it difficult when you’ve got pets.”

USFJ has explored options for Iwakuni and Misawa minus the Patriot, he said, including contracting with a smaller commercial aircraft or hauling passengers on C-130s to Yokota — but none so far have proven viable.

Harris said officials were resigned to drop Iwakuni and Misawa stops until Adm. William Fallon, the PACOM commander, initiated the current re-evaluation.

“The leadership … has really fought hard to keep it,” Harris said. “It’s been wiped out just about everywhere else in the world. … Ultimately, though, it’ll be left to the TRANSCOM commander to decide what the fate of this is going to be.”


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