Miserable Moving with the Military

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2020/01/07/miserable-moving-with-the-military/

Traveling military is often unpredictable, at times inefficient, and usually slower than you’d like. I knew all this well, but nothing prepared me for our journey home this past summer.

In June we moved from Greece, where my husband was working, back to America. He works for the U.S. Department of Defense, and because of that our family moves every few years. But this time was by far the most arduous — and the most ridiculous. In short, it was terrible. That’s because for this move we “traveled military,” flying from our Greek base to the base in Norfolk, Virginia on a government-contracted airline used by the Department of Defense to transport folks like us.

Government contractors, paid by D.O.D., are responsible for transporting military personnel and families, as well as civilians supporting the military, for moving needs and other travel. In this case the contractor was charged with flying my four children, our dog, and me from Greece to Virginia in a standard issue 737 airplane. We arrived three and a half days late – on Tuesday at noon instead of the prior Friday at midnight. We were delayed not just at the beginning in Greece (by 48 hours) but halfway through as well, when a two-hour refueling stopped turned into a 36-hour delay in Spain. A faulty panel that had been identified at the start and ostensibly corrected – the initial delay – again became faulty en route, revealing that the problem hadn’t been corrected at all.

The problem isn’t just this atrocious journey. The problem is that this type of poor performance, delay, and lack of professionalism is quite common for government-contracted military flights it makes on its regular schedule.

Hundreds of flights are delayed each year, so that reaching one’s destination days after scheduled arrival isn’t unusual. No wonder why those in the military community often groan and roll they eyes when they’re required to “fly military.” They know the air provider may well have them stuck somewhere for hours or days. They know that the contractors have no back-up planes available when things go wrong. They know that if a mechanical problem arises, the contracted airline has no access to nearby replacement parts for fixes – no, they must forage from sites seemingly around the globe and wait till they can be transported. In short, these government contractors have no Plan B when problems arise with their flights for military personnel and their families.

Two highlights from our story may illustrate the ludicrous nature of our experience. We left Greece forty-eight hours late and eventually landed at a scheduled stop in Rota. We waited five hours instead of the expected two hours, then were told we wouldn’t fly that night due to mechanical problems. Airline personnel told us the company would house us all in area hotels instead. When we asked for our luggage, it took more than two more hours for the suitcases to appear, never mind that ours was the only plane on the tarmac. But the bags of twenty passengers were lost and couldn’t be found despite hours of searching. In an epic moment, a Navy captain insisted on boarding the hold of the contracted plane himself to search for the luggage. He’d already been without it for three days; he would wait no longer. Picture the scene:  a senior military leader climbing around in the belly of the plane at one in the morning with a flashlight, looking for his bags! He found them, too – they’d been mis-stowed at the prior stop. The passengers finally got to the hotel at 2 in the morning.

Or take this one.

After 36 hours on the ground in Spain, we’re finally back at the base airport in the middle of the night, ready to board the plane for Virginia. Only we don’t board at 0415, as scheduled. Or 0430, or 0445. Finally, all pet-owners are called to a meeting. “There’s a problem, and pets can’t fly on this plane,” the captain announces. “The pet compartment cooling system isn’t working, and if we fly the pets they’ll die. So it looks like we’ll have to unload all the pets and their owners and fly without them.” There was no clarity about when or how they’d fly the pets and us owners to America. One staff member suggested we wait till the next regular government-contracted-scheduled flight, coming through Spain in ten days’ time.


“You’re honestly recommending that we stay here for ten days as a tenable solution?”  

It was 11 p.m. on the East Coast of America, and no supervisory personnel were answering his telephone calls. He could give us no additional help or input.

Theatre of the absurd.

In our first stroke of luck, they fixed the plane at the eleventh hour and we pet-owners, with our dogs, were able to stay on the flight to America, landing three and a half days after scheduled arrival.

How often does this sort of thing happen?

During fiscal year 2019, 424 of the 5,158 international charter flights provided by the Department of Defense were delayed more than 12 hours, according to a spokesman for the department. That’s about 8 percent. The spokesman also said that contracts penalize air carriers for late flights and that air carriers are held accountable.

Then why are catastrophic delays so common? From my conversations with other Department of Defense families taking the scheduled bi-weekly flight out of Greece, it’s clear to me that the particular route my family and I took is known for frequent long delays and other problems.

It’s outrageous that we are subjecting our military personnel and their families to such unprofessionalism and delays when they are required to “fly military.” It’s unacceptable that so many flights are met with problems of this sort. One family on our flight missed their house closing. One little girl missed her weeklong summer camp, the first time (as an overseas military kid) that she would have been with her cousin for years. One father, transitioning from D.O.D. work to another government job, missed his first three days of work and had to postpone starting his new job to the next pay period, resulting in a two-week delay in work and compensation.

The U.S. military and military families deserve better. After all, the Department of Defense is the federal government agency with the largest budget – more than $700 billion annually. Clearly there’s enough money in there for the government to transport military personnel, contractors, and their families effectively. So why do we have to deal with this type of delay and unprofessionalism? Why, when the flight attendants announce over the loudspeaker that they’re “honored and delighted” to have military on board, does it strike most of us on very delayed flights as supreme comedy? They thank us for our service, but it rings more than hollow.

This absolutely should not be. The Department of Defense should ensure that all reasonable measures are taken to ensure smooth and time-efficient moves for its military and their families. The contractors that work for the government should be subjected to greater oversight and scrutiny by the D.O.D., and the airlines should be held accountable not just for delays but for how they treat their passengers. Contingency plans should be put in place to ensure that flight delays not exceed 24 hours. The Department of Defense should ensure that the individuals and families serving and helping to defend America are treated at least as well as they would be if they were flying commercial.

Right now, nothing of the sort is occurring.

And we can do better.


Susan Arico is a consultant and writer, now living in America after three years in Greece. Visit her at www.susanbarico.com for more.