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USFJ, Pacific Command efforts keep Patriot Express flying high

Elimination of air service to Okinawa, Japan staved off for at least at year

By VINCE LITTLE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 18, 2005

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The Patriot Express will continue in Japan and Okinawa for at least another year after U.S. Forces Japan and Pacific Command succeeded in retaining the chartered military commercial air service.

Stops at Yokota Air Base, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni and Misawa Air Base in Japan will remain almost unchanged through fiscal 2006. But flights to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, which Air Mobility Command officials originally marked for elimination, now will happen once weekly, not twice.

Osan and Kunsan air bases in South Korea got no reprieve; service there still is to end Oct. 1.

The Patriot Express gateway at Los Angeles International Airport will close the same day as part of a Defense Department restructuring plan to save $67 million a year. But USFJ officials said service from Japan and Okinawa to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has been extended — at least until Sept. 30, 2006.

USFJ officials said a flight intended solely to service Okinawa will originate in Seattle every Thursday and stop at Yokota and Kadena, then reverse course two days later.

Since Okinawa’s service is being reduced, personnel based there will have priority for both duty and space-available seats. Officials say that could reduce the number available for servicemembers, civilians, families and retirees on mainland Japan.

Four additional Patriot Express flights per month will continue traveling to Yokota — with two stopping off at Iwakuni and Misawa and two others alternating between those installations. They always depart Seattle on Wednesday, according to USFJ officials.

Beginning in October, the flights to both Japan and Okinawa will be carried out in 280-passenger L1011 aircraft, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Harris, operations branch chief for USFJ’s logistics directorate.

“The Patriot Express provides a critical capability to bring people directly to, or close to, their home stations,” he said. “The things a family of four have to go through flying commercial on the mainland are pretty tough. … Landing at Yokota or Kadena is much more convenient for our forces.”

The effort to salvage the Patriot Express for Japan and Okinawa began in April, when Air Force Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, USFJ commander, became worried about the impact cancellation might have on quality-of-life and mission support for servicemembers and their families. He appealed to Adm. William J. Fallon, PACOM commander, for help.

Fallon and his staff reached an agreement with the U.S. Transportation Command to keep it in the air, USFJ officials said.

The argument to retain the Patriot Express service was centered on its value to military members and their families — particularly in lower ranks — and the relatively low cost of transporting pets, he added.

“You’re basically paying for excess baggage costs and it can run into the thousands of dollars depending on the size of the pet,” Harris said. Pet-transportation costs are not reimbursed by the U.S. government, he said.

USFJ officials say they’re eager to make the Patriot Express a permanent fixture in Japan and Okinawa — which they say economics will determine.

“This is a one-year trial,” Harris said. “It’s important that this service be used by our components to move paying customers — those on PCS or TDY status. That’s what pays for these missions. (Transportation Command) has to at least break even. … Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense businesswise.”

Transportation Command authorities likely will decide next summer, he said.

AMC officials plan to renew emphasis on customer service to attract more “paying” travelers, said Marine Maj. James Bell, a USFJ spokesman.

“A big key … will be sustaining an environment for Japan-bound Patriot Express travelers that makes the … experience positive and satisfying for every customer who uses it,” he said. “Ultimately, Patriot Express should become the word-of-mouth option of choice for PCS travelers needing to come to Japan.”

Citing a growing number of customers who prefer commercial airlines’ flexibility, AMC officials have said they’ll phase out most Patriot Express routes by fiscal 2008. Exceptions will include locations without sufficient commercial options or areas with high security concerns such as Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Diego Garcia.


Airmen are greeted as they arrive at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea aboard a chartered Patriot Express flight.
Franklin Fisher / S&S

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