Fifteen days ago, my husband Bill and I embarked on our second ever Space A adventure. The first time we flew space available on military missions, we went to Germany. It was May 2012 and we hit Cologne, Munich, Salzburg, Trier, Luxembourg City, and Rodange. Our adventure lasted only eight days, but we crammed a lot into those eight days. I blogged about that experience on The Overeducated Housewife if anyone is interested. It’s there because I didn’t have a travel blog when we did that trip.
This time, we went to Portugal and Spain. I was hoping we’d go to those places, since neither Bill nor I had ever been to Portugal. While I had been to Spain in 1997 and we had both visited Barcelona in April 2009, Bill had never been to any other Spanish city. We didn’t find being in either Spain or Portugal to be expensive, though in the past when I’ve tried to arrange travel there, I’ve found that getting there is either a pain in the ass or overly expensive. So when we had the chance to fly to Lajes Field, an Air Force Base in the Azores, we jumped at it. We knew that if we didn’t make the Lajes flight, we could always hang around at the Space A Terminal until later and try for the weekly Germany flight.
We have moved to Texas since our last Space A flight. You’d think a military friendly state like Texas would have lots of Space A flights available. We live very close to Randolph Air Force Base, where we can watch Air Force pilots train from our backyard. But there are few decent Space A flights to be had in the San Antonio area. We knew that our best and most convenient chance for a flight abroad meant that we’d need to fly to Baltimore. At BWI, there is a Space A/AMC terminal. The planes that leave from BWI are mostly normal planes… the same kind you’d find at any commercial airport. The flights are charted by Atlas Airlines or another obscure air group that does charters… or sometimes Delta Airlines.
Bill and I made plans to fly to Baltimore on Friday, January 10th. We dropped our dogs off at Camp Bow Wow of San Antonio. Then we stopped at Target to buy Bill a couple of pairs of jeans because he had informed me that he was wearing the only pants he was bringing. I vetoed that idea, knowing that we could get caught in wet or nasty weather wherever we went. I also didn’t want him to be pantsless in the event we did laundry (which we did… actually, Bill did the laundry twice, so it was good that he had spare pants).
Our one way tickets to BWI were on Delta and cost about $550 or so. I also booked us a room at the Aloft at BWI. We had stayed at two Aloft hotels in North Carolina and knew Alofts are kind of a trendy brand of hotel, probably better suited to younger, hipper folks. We couldn’t beat the price, though.
Bill on our very first of several flights…
To get to BWI, we had to fly from San Antonio to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Baltimore. It was a fairly long process to get to where we were going. During our layover to Baltimore, we got delayed…
We’re finally on our way to Baltimore after a lengthy delay in Atlanta… the crew from this flight also stayed at Aloft.
Happily, Aloft is smoke free.
It took awhile to get to Baltimore and once we arrived, I was more than ready for a nice, strong margarita… This one was made with Patron tequila, which really hit the spot.
Bill stuck with beer and ate the wasabi peanuts, which cleared out his sinuses… You can see by the look on his face that he just ate a strong one.
After a good sleep, we rose very early. Showtime for the Lajes flight was 5:30am. That means we had to be at BWI and signed up requesting a flight by 5:30. And since Bill is very anal retentive about such things, we got there even earlier. There were only 23 seats up for grabs and a couple of families were already assembled in the airport. They had young kids who were running amok. I must admit I was only slightly annoyed by their antics, moreso because it was so early in the morning.
Signing up at BWI…
Having done Space A once before from BWI, we knew where to go and what the drill was to sign up for a flight. A youngish bald guy in an Air Force uniform was behind the counter. When Bill said he wanted to sign up for Lajes, the first thing the guy said was, “You’re not retired, are you?”
Poor Bill has always looked young for his age, but I guess his impending separation from the Army is starting to show. He gave the guy a bashful smile and said, “Not yet.”
The guy sighed and said, “Well, since you’re “category III” (meaning an active duty service member on leave), you might make this flight. But I can’t guarantee it.”
I piped up and said, “We’re flexible.” He gave us a big smile. I think I uttered the “magic words”.
The guy told us some shocking things that he’s heard from folks wanting to fly Space A. The first thing to understand is that you have to have all of your paperwork in order. You have to have passports, military IDs for everyone (kids included), leave forms if you’re still in the service, and you must be flexible. Our poor Air Force guy told us about some shameless people who made their kids go up and beg him to bend the rules so they could go see their daddy. Though it clearly broke his heart to say no to the kids, rules are rules. So get your shit in order beforehand to avoid disappointment.
Also, remember that no matter how long you’ve been waiting for a Space A flight, there is always a risk that you might be bumped by someone with a higher priority. For instance, if someone needs to get to their duty station or needs to get somewhere on emergency leave, their needs will trump your desire to get to a vacation spot. And sometimes missions get changed or cancelled altogether.
The Air Force guy also said that officers and their families often act entitled, which I was sorry to hear. For God’s sake, Space A travel is practically free. There is NO reason to abuse the poor folks running the show and helping service members, their families, and retirees get to other places. And really, getting pissy with them doesn’t help. In fact, in our experience, if you are nice to the people running Space A, they will bend over backwards to help you.
After giving the guy our info, Bill and I sat down to wait a couple of hours. The flight was supposed to leave at about 9:00am and we’d find out if we were going to be on it a couple of hours beforehand. More people showed up and when our friendly Air Force friend came out to tell us who was going to Lajes, we were on the list! He smiled broadly, clearly happy he could help us out. One or two folks in a lower category were not selected. I think one was a guy who was “category IV”, meaning he was a family member who lived on Lajes.
Once we found out we were on the flight, we dropped off our bags and paid the airport tax, which for the both of us totaled $34.40. When was the last time you flew to Europe for less than $40? Then the guy behind the counter asked me my weight, which I naturally fudged. In all honesty, I avoid scales at all costs. He took our checked bags and sent us on our way.
Off we went to security, which was completely deserted. We went through in record time and to the gate to wait. As we were waiting, we started talking to some of the people going. Everyone else on that flight lived at Lajes. We talked to one Air Force captain who had her kids with her. She said the plane we were going on came and went on a weekly basis and carried their mail. The front half of the plane was reserved for the cargo, while the back part was a passenger compartment.
It was a very rainy day and cold. The plane we were going on was due to arrive from McGuire Air Force Base during the mid morning. But time was slipping past as we waited and waited. I was glad I’d brought my portable hot spot, so I could surf the ‘net.
Bill plays with his phone at BWI.
The plane we went to Lajes on.
Warped and very uncomfortable bench… At first I thought it was a rigid bench and too many butts had sat on it for too many hours, but it turned out the material was pretty flexible.
Behind the FedEx plane is one from Egypt, which apparently visits BWI often. We later saw what looked like the same plane in Lajes. We were told those planes carried a lot of goods.
The Crazy TSA agent…
Time marched on and we were getting antsier and antsier, though I was enjoying some of the Lajes folks, who turned out to be really cool people. We were told that Lajes was a very close-knit place and everyone seemed to know each other. Indeed, we watched one guy who works for the Armed Forces Network playing with some of the kids, entertaining them very effectively by racing down the empty departures hall with them.
While we were sitting there waiting for our flight, a black guy in a TSA uniform struck up a conversation with Bill. He said, “Are you Army or Navy?”
I was surprised he could tell, but apparently Bill’s haircut gave him away. Bill told him he was Army and the TSA guy immediately started telling us a number of what sounded like very tall tales. He had a gift for story telling– don’t get me wrong– but I think about 85% of what he told us was utter bullshit. He had all kinds of stories about being a DC cop, military service members who tried to sneak grenades back from war zones and got caught, and conspiracy theories. It was a bit of a mind blower. On the other hand, he was a lot more pleasant than the last TSA agent I had dealings with at the Philly airport after we got home from Italy and Greece. If you’re interested in that story, check my posts from May and June on this blog.
As the guy was talking to us, I got a phone call on Bill’s phone from USAA. They wanted to pay me to be in a focus group/survey. It was weird telling the guy that we were about to leave the country. On the other hand, my being on the phone seemed to send the TSA guy on his way. As interesting and entertaining as he was, he wasn’t one to let anyone get a word in edgewise and was starting to talk our ears off. We probably listened to his stories for a good twenty or thirty minutes.
Not long after the TSA guy– who had supposedly worked for and knew everyone in the Pentagon– left us, we were called for the flight. I was excited. We were on our way! We all got in the people mover and got to the plane, sat our asses down in the seats, buckled up… and then were told we had to get off and go back to the terminal. Psych!!!