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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The mornings were getting darker. On the third day of trying to hop a flight from Yokota Air Base, Japan, to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, roll call was at 5:10 a.m.

And so the process began anew: Set the alarm for an ungodly hour, wolf down a bowl of cereal with a swig of Joe, lug the bags out the door to Yokota’s Air Mobility Command passenger terminal, and then … wait.

Welcome to Space-A travel.

Space-A privileges are one of the perks of joining the military or working for the Defense Department. Just as its name implies, Space-A is free — as long as there’s space available.

Experienced Space-A travelers preach flexibility and patience: Be prepared to wait a few days to get on a flight and, in some cases, change travel plans.

The best Space-A candidates are travelers with time to kill who don’t need to reach their destination tomorrow. Unlike paid commercial flights, no one is guaranteed a seat.

As a DOD civilian, I’m entitled to two Space-A flights per year. But after 24 months on the job, I’ve always driven the two-plus hours to Tokyo’s Narita Airport for a commercial flight: I didn’t have a clue about Space-A.

That was about to change. My assignment: Get to the tropical Pacific island of Guam via Space-A.

And so it was that on the first morning I met Dana Ross.

No plane today

A rail-thin 20-year-old waitress, Ross was jet-lagged but determined as she waited at Yokota’s terminal for a 9 a.m. roll call.

Four days after boarding a commercial flight from Orlando, Fla., to San Francisco, Ross was only the Sea of Japan away from her husband, an infantry soldier stationed at Camp Casey, South Korea. After a seven-month separation, Ross and her 80 pounds of luggage were to spend a month with Pvt. Chris Ross.

Looking around at the near-empty terminal, Ross liked her chances.

Her odds were more promising than mine. “There are no flights to Guam today,” a passenger service agent told me.

My first Space-A attempt was a bust.

It was also a bust for Al Del Valle, a Navy senior chief storekeeper with Guam’s USS Frank Cable, and his wife, Olga.

“They told us yesterday that the flight this morning was going to Guam,” Del Valle said. “I’m still new in the game. I think you just get up, eat breakfast and show up.”

Cal Colavechio shook his head and smiled: he knows better. The 67-year-old retired Navy master chief submariner was trying to get to Guam, as well, and then on to Saipan, where he has a home. Colavechio’s been showing up for Space-A roll calls for 13 years without expectations. He’s been bumped minutes before boarding — even after taking his seat.

“My motto: ‘I’m not there until I’m halfway there,’” Colavechio said.

Try Again Tomorrow

Ross fought back tears: roll call did not go well. The C-21 Lear jet bound for Osan Air Base, Korea, had seats, but no one told Ross about the 30-pound baggage limit.

“He just said, ‘You can’t get on this flight,’” said a stunned Ross, referring to the passenger service agent. “I said, ‘OK.’”

At Travis Air Force Base, Calif., Ross was bumped from two Space-A flights. She doled out nearly $200 for cab fare and off-base lodging. Her patience and hard-earned tips were quickly dwindling.

But Ross’s luck was about to turn. Another passenger service agent suggested she mail her excess baggage at no cost through the Military Postal System. Two hours later, after a speed-run to the post office, Ross boarded the Lear jet — minus some clothes and shoes.

“It’s an adventure that I don’t want to take again anytime soon,” she sighed.

The Del Valles were finishing up their own Space-A adventure. After celebrating their 26th wedding anniversary in Hong Kong, the Del Valles still had leave to burn, so they tried for a Space-A flight from Guam to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. The flight destined for McChord Air Force Base in Washington State, they were told, would make a pit stop in Hawaii.

Their boarding passes were stamped “McChord via Hickam.” But when the plane’s hatch closed, a flight attendant remarked on the Del Valles’ Hawaiian shirts: “This flight is going to McChord. You guys are going to freeze your buns off.”

The Del Valles just smiled. “I’m thinking, ‘The joke is on you — I’m getting off in Hawaii,’” Al Del Valle said.

Eleven hours later, they stepped off the plane in Washington.

Now, they sat back at Yokota, but they had no complaints. The couple cheerily grabbed their bags and headed back to Yokota’s Kanto Lodge — where rooms start at $22 a night — with plans to try again in the morning.

Twice in a day

Colavechio let me in on a little secret: Call the passenger terminal often, up until 10 p.m. closing, because the schedule can change by the hour. Though my first Space-A attempt was unsuccessful, a Lear jet to Guam was due to depart the next morning, roll call at 6:40 a.m. On a whim, I called the passenger terminal at 5:30 that night, just to double-check.

“You want to go to Guam?” the passenger service agent asked. “Can you be here in 10 minutes?”

A C-9A Nightingale aeromedical-evacuation plane was making an unscheduled run to Andersen. The usual suspects were at the terminal: Colavechio, the Del Valles and a retired couple.

Ann Que, traveling with husband Rudy, a retired technical sergeant, learned about the flight 30 minutes earlier.

At roll call, the service rep announced that no seats would be released. There’s no explanation, so we headed home.

Three times no charm

Tech. Sgt. Victor Cardwell, an AMC passenger service superintendent at Yokota, offers this advice to prospective Space-A travelers: “You got to be real flexible.”

Cardwell has seen passengers faint, cry and moan when bumped from a flight. Passengers have pleaded with him to release seats, but, he said, the air crew and mission dictate how many seats are available.

I try not to faint when I’m booted from the Lear jet to Guam the next morning. Five seats were released. Flying Category 5, the second to last priority status, I made the cut above the Ques and Colavechio. But, moments before receiving my ticket, the passenger list was slashed from five to three — and only the Del Valles and Senior Airman Kristinalee Petko were now going to Guam.

Petko was traveling solo in pursuit of a tropical vacation. The 22-year-old Yokota resident tried for three days to get to Hawaii, after her friend snagged a Space-A seat on a Yokota-to-Hickam flight and she didn’t.

“I thought, ‘You know, I’m packed for warm weather. What else works for me? Guam works for me.’”

Her supervisor approved the destination change on her leave papers, and Petko grabbed a Space-A seat to Guam on her first attempt.

Space-A “is very easy to do,” she said. “It’s easy to get your papers. It’s easy to call about flights. The hard part is waiting.”

Yes, waiting was the hard part. Once again, it was back to square one for me. I would try for another flight to Guam tomorrow, this one a regularly scheduled C-9 flight.

Roll call: 5:10 a.m.

A seat and sun

Same routine, except it’s darker and I was half asleep. At roll call, 20 seats were released — and I made the list. The plane was full — more people show up for Space-A on the days of regular flights, I’m told.

After a two-hour wait, we’re herded into the room with a glass wall, where we waited some more to take a bus out to the flight line and our plane. We lost three more passengers when seat availability was reduced to 17 less than an hour before departure. Colavecnio made it, and so did I, but the Ques didn’t.

After three days of trying for Space-A, I’ve heard lots of tales. Almost everyone who’s flown Space-A has a story to tell.

While waiting to board the C-9, I met Barbara Cackovic, a mother of four at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The Cackovics were on a C-5 to Hawaii when it turned around and went back to Kadena. The next day, the aircraft made layovers at Osan Air Base in South Korea, and then at Iwakuni, “where they tried to fix the same problem, again,” said Barbara Cackovic. “They told us, ‘It’s nothing a little glue won’t fix,’ so it didn’t make us really confident.”

Amid the numerous stops and anxiety of that trip, Cackovic and her husband swore, “‘Forget this. We’re never doing this again,’” Barbara Cackovic said. “But as soon as we got on the ground, and it was all tropical and beautiful, and we saved $4,000 to get six of us to Hawaii, we said, ‘Oh, this isn’t so bad.’”

She’s right. Despite the hassles, it’s hard to beat a flight to a tropical island that costs less than a train ride to Tokyo.

And it only took three days to get there.

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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