Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett recently approved the change to the service's leave policy for airmen and members of the Space Force. Now, they should consult their direct chain of command in an emergency situation, such as the death or serious medical condition of an immediate family member, according to a recent release. Previously, approval had to come from higher authorities, something officials said created barriers to getting leave approved in a timely manner.
"This delegation gives commanders and civilian directors the flexibility to assist their Airmen and Space Professionals directly and eliminates steps to get this type of leave approved," Lisa Truesdale, deputy director of Air Force military force management policy, said in the release. "Additionally, our leaders can now aid their members faster and help prevent them from going into an unfavorable leave status in such a difficult time."
Officials noted emergency leave of absence is not the same as emergency leave.
According to the revised Air Force Instruction, service members may take an emergency leave of absence only once during their entire career; it can be granted for up to two consecutive weeks. Additionally, the emergency leave "is nonchargeable to the member's leave balance," per the release, in order to "prevent the service member from entering advanced or excess leave status."
Commanders or directors will determine what qualifies as an emergency absence, it said.
By contrast, emergency leave is considered chargeable leave and may be approved for reasons similar to an emergency leave of absence, the release said. "There are no restrictions on the number of times emergency leave can be granted," it said.
In 2017, the Air Force made a similar move over crew rest rules, which dictate how much uninterrupted rest time an airman must have in order to fly.
The service moved that authority down to wing commanders in order to streamline the decision-making process and give more authority to lower-echelon officials who interact with their airmen on a regular basis.
"The question is, if we're in combat and we have a mission that's required, what is the decision authority where a commander then can make a call?" then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said at the time.
"How do we push decision authority down to the lowest practical level as a warfighting imperative?" he said during a roundtable discussion at the Air Force Association's Air, Space & Cyber Conference. "What we're saying is that we trust commanders. ... We're sending a message to the force: We trust you to determine whether your force is ready to execute the mission."
The changes are part of the service's overall goal to get rid of policies that bog down airmen.
Alongside Goldfein, then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson pointed to other regulations that hinder the force. She gave a personal anecdote of seeing outdated policies in action as Hurricane Irma was approaching Florida in 2017.
"A wing commander at Patrick Air Force Base, [Florida], ... by the regulations had to submit a written request to be able to use his high-water vehicle to drive it to his domicile overnight because there's a prohibition of using military vehicles for domicile-to-duty travel," Wilson said during the AFA roundtable.
"I had to pull the reg for him," she said. "Because the regulation [to receive a waiver] says you need to start the paperwork 45 days in advance to ensure you have the authority. ... I'll spare you what I really said. This doesn't make any sense, and every airman knows it doesn't make any sense. That's stupid. And we need to just say it's stupid and try to fix it."
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the differences between emergency leave and emergency leave of absence and to add more information provided by the Air Force.