A government-chartered Patriot Express route that connects Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, with Seattle-Tacoma International Airport will become permanent next fiscal year thanks to a successful pandemic-era test run.
Bi-weekly flights on that route started last year on a six-month trial basis to accommodate military families with pets changing their duty stations. The families found a lack of commercial carrier options and burdensome restrictions added costs to their moves to and from the U.S. territory.
The pilot program was extended another six months as coronavirus travel restrictions cut into ridership, according to a statement emailed to Stars and Stripes on Thursday from Air Force Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
After further review, U.S. Transportation Command and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command signed off on the route for the fiscal year 2022 Pentagon budget.
"The Patriot Express has been a big win for morale and resilience for Guam [Defense Department] personnel and their families," Air Mobility Command's statement said. "We exceeded our break even points despite COVID-19."
A stop at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa is also being added next month to "ensure mission requirements are met at both locations and the aircraft are utilized to the fullest extent possible," according to the command.
The Patriot Express -- sometimes referred to as the Rotator or Cat B flight -- ferries travelers on official duty to U.S. military installations around the globe. Common destinations include the continental United States, Hawaii, Alaska, Japan and South Korea as well as bases across Europe.
The Patriot Express also allows space-available travel for eligible passengers.
Brig. Gen. Gentry Boswell, commander at Andersen at the time, announced the route's inception, which followed several instances of service members raising money online to defer permanent change of station costs. In January 2019, a Navy family raised $11,592, the cost of shipping their two German shepherds to Guam from Virginia.
Boswell also said he hoped the route would allow more airmen to make it home for holidays and special occasions.
During the trial period, approximately 4,300 passengers and 400 pets utilized the flights, the command said. While larger pets often traveled in the cargo hold, smaller ones sometimes rode in the cabin with their families.
The coronavirus pandemic heavily impacted the pilot program, according to the command's statement Thursday.
Then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued a stop movement order April 20 that barred all PCS travel. On May 22, he lifted restrictions on travel to some locations that met specific criteria.
"As restrictions ease, we expect increased usage of the Patriot Express, allowing for continued availability to transport pets and opportunities for Space Available travel," Air Mobility Command's statement said. "This gives our Airmen a low-cost option to stay connected with friends and families off island."
All Patriot Express routes are reevaluated annually for necessity and cost effectiveness, the command said. Routes are routinely altered for additional stops.
After booking travel reservations for families and pets through the installation transportation office, service members and their families are encouraged to check the Andersen Passenger Terminal Facebook page for flight schedules and updates.
Families making PCS moves are permitted to travel with two animals, restricted to dogs and cats, and must meet all shipping and country entry requirements, the 36th Wing said. Capacity is limited based on the carrier's cargo configuration.
Pet transport alone is not authorized for Space-A travel.