Daily Mom Military- What to Expect When You PCS on the Patriot Express

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It’s the jetliner taking you on the long haul — the final stretch of the biggest (or second biggest if you’re returning to the states) PCS of your life, and it’s run by the lowest contracted bidder.

What is the Patriot Express, Alex?


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It’s not quite first-class flying, but it’s not really the image that pops into your head when you hear “military flight” — you get an actual seat in a cabin, not a cold bench seat along the wall of a cargo hold in the back of a C-130. But, inquiring PCSers want to know: If it isn’t luxury flying, and it isn’t a cargo transfer, what the heck are we supposed to expect on the Patriot Express?

First, like most everything else in military vernacular, the Patriot Express goes by several names (just to make sure someone, from some branch is always confused when it’s mentioned). You might also know the Patriot Express as:

  • A rotator flight
  • The Patriot
  • Pat-eX or PE (Because we heart acronyms, don’t we?)
  • Freedom Bird
  • AMC flight (That’s another sweet acronym for Air Mobility Command,  not to be confused with a Space-A flight which could be the same plane, but could be an actual ride in a cargo hold — crystal clear, right?)

Getting your Patriot Express reservations will be just another step in your overseas (or OCONUS) PCS workup — somewhere between obtaining your area clearance and packing up everything in your house.

Once you’ve secured your seat, you just need to get on the plane. Which Patriot you board depends on where you’re going. The Patriot Express has three hubs in the states with corresponding routes. You will catch your flight overseas at one of these three hubs. The West Coast Patriot runs in and out of the Seattle-Tacoma (SeaTac) Airport and services at Misawa, Osan, Yokota, Kadena, Iwakuni, Travis-Hickam, and Yokota-Singapore. From the East Coast, the Patriot rotates out of Baltimore/Washington International (BWI) Thurgood Marshall Airport and Naval Air Station Norfolk. From BWI, you can reach Ramstein and Incirlik. NAS Norfolk will take you to exotic NAS Jacksonville (domestic), Guantanamo, Rota, Naples, Souda Bay, Bahrain, Sigonella, and Djibouti. Schedules and destinations vary based on the day of the week and, of course, flights are subject to change. And, if you’re currently thinking your current installation is nowhere near one of these hubs, never fear. Travel from your current duty station to these airports will be included in your covered travel expenses.

Boarding the Patriot Express starts early. Imagine the earliest you’ve ever arrived for a flight, then roll the clock back several hours. It’s not uncommon for passengers to stay overnight in the airport — thank goodness for the hospitality of the USO. You can store the zillion pounds of luggage you’re towing (we’ll get to that next) at the USO, and you’re likely to find something to eat, drink and do in the lounge. SeaTac has a kid-friendly room, showers, food, drinks, phone chargers, games, and a black leather sea of recliners. You’ll be on the plane with many of the people hanging out there with you, so you might as well let them get used to the sight of you snoozing and drooling in a slightly reclined chair while your children talk louder than necessary while trying to eat all the snacks and play all the toys.

People will begin lining up in the wee hours of the morning because seats are first come, first served. Families with young children can usually stand in a separate line so everyone can be seated together — be sure to ask if no one points you in the right direction!

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Once you get to the front of the line, you will check in just like a commercial flight, with your name, ID, passports for all members of your party, orders (the only difference), and baggage checking. On Patriot flights, every passenger (yes, kids too) is allowed two pieces of checked baggage 70 lbs. or under each (and 62 linear inches — sum of length+width+height). These extra-large Homdox Foldable Duffle Bags, even when stuffed to the gills, are still under 70 lbs., and as a bonus, they fold flat so you can store them until it’s time to move again! Baggage over the weight or size limit will cost you $120 per piece, but if items are over 80 linear inches or 100 lbs., it can’t be checked. You also cannot just opt to pay for an extra bag. You get two; that’s it. Car seats do not count against your luggage count! Carry-on items are just like commercial flights: one personal item and one bag that must fit under the seat or in the overhead compartment.

After you’ve checked in and passed through security, you will move groggily — albeit much lighter without the excess baggage — to a new area of the airport until you can actually board your flight…we’re talking hours to burn. If you’ve got goals, try to nap in as many locations of the empty airport as possible, or try out all the restrooms to see if the soap smells the same in each one. You know you’re getting close to boarding time when the restaurants start to open for the day and you can smell the sweet aroma of coffee roasting.

You will be served meals on your flight, but from an anonymous Patriot traveler (who is not so anonymously writing this article), do yourself and your family a favor and eat breakfast in the airport and buy some snacks or premade meals before boarding. If you’re traveling with kids (and chances are, if you’re doing your Patriot Express research on a website with mom in the title, you are), you can also stuff their carry-on bag with TSA-approved snacks just like you would on a commercial flight.

Once you’re seated, buckled, and the wheels are up, here’s what to expect for the next few hours:

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  1. Regular meal, snack, and beverage service — There’s no shame in pretending to be asleep when they roll through with the aromatic cart of TV dinners.
  2. Hot towels — Wait? Is this first class? No? OK.
  3. Inflight movies — Don’t expect the movies to be kid-friendly. If that makes you nervous for your littles, don’t worry, they won’t be able to hear movies without headphones, and they likely won’t be able to see the movies anyway because the TVs aren’t on every headrest. (Insider tip: Bring your own movie player and headphones for each family member, but chargers are NOT available on board.)
  4. Involuntary sleep/Involuntary wakeups — It’s a long trip, and you will already be the most tired you’ve ever been when you board the Patriot. Don’t fight the sleep. Embrace the drool and the neck cramps. Your children will fall asleep on you. Your neighbor may fall asleep on you. They will also be responsible for waking you up against your will at some point during the flight. They will get assistance in this from the service cart (but to be fair, the crew is mostly quiet during service).
  5. A B-team in-flight crew — You may be amazed at the professionalism, patience, and super-human balance of flight attendants on commercial flights. The flight attendants on your Patriot flight may not knock your socks off, but they are probably tired too, so keep that in mind. They will have moments of balance checks and moodiness — not unlike yourself as you navigate to the airplane bathroom between two long naps. You can always extend the olive branch — from personal experience, a travel-sized carton of rainbow Goldfish crackers that your kid swore off shortly after takeoff, can brighten the day of a flight attendant with an acquired tasted for them.
  6. Layovers — The Patriot earned the nickname of “rotator flight” for a reason, it stops at more than one base per trip, dropping off and picking up folks along the way (rotating them…see what they did there?). If you are on the Patriot heading to Iwakuni, Japan, for instance, you can expect to stop at Yokota. If you have pets, there is a designated place to walk them around while you wait. When you hop off the plane, bring any electronics and chargers, so you can charge up while you wait.

When you finally reach your final destination, you’ll find your luggage on the baggage claim belt, load up some luggage carts, get a quick brief — one that you’ll remember absolutely nothing about because you’re basically sleeping with your eyes open at this point. Hopefully, your sponsor, a friend, or colleague will be waiting to take you and your many bags to your lodging facility where you can get some much-needed sleep. You made it! Now the fun of living overseas can begin. Make the most of it.

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Kristi Stolzenberg
Kristi Stolzenberg
Kristi and her Marine Corps pilot hubby have two creative and beautiful (read: messy and expensive) kids who are pretty amazing, even if they do have more energy than a double shot of espresso. She started writing in 2009 with a weekly column in The New Bern Sun Journal about her fabulously frazzled first years as a military spouse, and she’s been writing and editing ever since —a recurring blog on Military OneSource’s Blog Brigade, content for Department of Defense publications, and a string of grad school essays for her master’s that she hopes she’ll eventually get to use. She’s organization-obsessed, a multitasker, runner, reader, and travel aficionado, and she secretly loves moving every three(ish) years. Her native language is English, but she’s also fluent in military acronyms and sarcasm.