TOKYO — A second Patriot Express flight will make stops at U.S. bases in Japan — including Misawa Air Base — starting next month, according to the Air Force.
The change marks the end of a nearly four-year absence of the flights at Misawa. Servicemembers and families there have had to travel through Tokyo — a lengthy and expensive trip in itself — to get back to the States during their overseas moves. It also means that two flights will stop at Yokota Air Base each week, rather than the current single stop, officials said.
But the changes will offer only limited “space available” seats for people looking for an easy flight from a U.S. military base in Japan directly to Seattle, according to interviews with air terminal officials and an analyst at U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
And there’s one other caveat: There will be no customs desk for travelers coming from Seattle to Misawa, according to Christopher Barnett, the station manager for Air Mobile Command flights at Misawa.
That means anyone who is not on official temporary duty status, or who does not have orders that allow them to live in Japan under the status of forces agreement, must fly south to Yokota Air Base to legally enter the country, Barnett said. That will include military retirees and any family members who are not included in command-sponsored orders, said Barnett, who works for Maytag Aircraft Corp., a contractor with the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command.
Still, the returning Patriot Express service is better than the current option. Since 2005, Misawa families have had to fly through Tokyo both ways. Their travel to Misawa has meant taking a 12-hour bus ride, a $330 train ride or a $615 domestic flight north.
The new service is part of a $150 million contract for Patriot Express flights worldwide, according to Larry Lorentzen, a senior transportation analyst with U.S. Transportation Command. The contract for the Japan flights is with North American Air and Ryan Air, and lasts through the end of September 2010, Lorentzen said in an e-mail last week to Stars and Stripes.
The new flights begin Oct. 4. One will depart Seattle on Sundays, arriving in Misawa, Yokota and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni on Mondays. On Tuesdays, the flight will backtrack from Iwakuni to Seattle.
The second flight will leave Seattle on Thursdays, arriving in Yokota and Kadena Air Base on Okinawa on Fridays. That same day, the flight will backtrack from Kadena to Seattle.
The current service — from Seattle to Yokota, Iwakuni and Okinawa and back again — uses a 313-seat DC-10, according to Lorentzen. In the past few months, those flights have been about 80 percent full, he wrote. The two new flights will use 190-seat Boeing 757s, he said.
Each flight will have a dedicated number of seats reserved for each stop to ensure people on PCS and duty orders will be covered. Any unused seats will be open to Space A travelers.
All flights start and end at Seattle International Airport and refuel in Anchorage, Lorentzen said. Flights also will have a limited number of reserved spots in an environmentally-controlled room in the cargo hold for families moving with pets, he said.
Barnett said the early arrival at Misawa each Monday, coupled with the harsh winter weather in the area, makes it impossible to provide Japanese customs services for incoming passengers. The hope is that those same passengers can go through customs at Yokota, then catch the Patriot Express as it swings north to Misawa on its way to Seattle, he said.
At Misawa, the new flight will curb some of that extra commercial travel for those traveling on orders, said Barnett. But he warned those looking for easier routes for vacation not to rely on the Patriot Express.
“It’s not designed for Space A,” he said of the service.
For Yokota and Kadena air bases:
The weekly flight will depart Seattle International Airport shortly after midnight on Thursdays. Five seats will be reserved for Yokota passengers and 185 for Kadena passengers. After refueling in Anchorage, the flight will land at Yokota on Friday morning around daybreak. The plane will go onto Kadena, landing there around noon.
Friday afternoon, the plane leaves Kadena with 185 seats reserved for Kadena passengers and five seats reserved for Yokota passengers. It will land at Yokota in the early evening and leave for the States before midnight. It will refuel in Anchorage and arrive back in Seattle early evening on Friday.
For Misawa and Yokota air bases and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni:
The weekly flight will depart Seattle International Airport shortly after midnight on Sundays. Forty-five seats will be reserved for Misawa, 100 for Yokota and 45 for Iwakuni. After refueling in Anchorage, the flight will land at Misawa on Monday around daybreak. It will depart for Yokota at mid-morning and arrive before noon. The flight will continue to Iwakuni, landing in the afternoon.
On Tuesday, the flight will leave Iwakuni around daybreak with 45 seats for Iwakuni passengers, 100 for Yokota passengers and 45 for Misawa passengers. It will arrive at Yokota in the morning and depart for Misawa before noon. It will leave Misawa in the afternoon, refuel in Anchorage and arrive in Seattle on Tuesday morning before noon.