Lucky Airline Passengers to See Total Solar Eclipse From Plane

Alaska Airlines takes customer service to new heights.

ByBecky Perlow
March 08, 2016, 3:50 PM

— -- If one man can change the world, then one man can certainly change a flight path.

And that’s exactly what Joe Rao did.

Rao, an associate astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium in New York (where celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson works), is an eclipse chaser, or someone who traverses the globe in search of that perfect moment when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun.

So in 2015, while trying to figure out where to view the eclipse and wondering whether any planes would be in a good position, he discovered that an Alaska Airlines flight traveling from Anchorage, Alaska, to Honolulu would be passing directly through the path of today’s event.

The catch? Passengers would only see the eclipse if the flight was changed to depart 25 minutes later than planned.

So Rao started emailing Alaska Airlines, alerting them to the total solar eclipse and pitching the idea of changing the flight to intercept the total solar eclipse. One email isn’t enough to change the mind of a Fortune 500 company, though.

“I just made a pest of myself. I just kept calling and emailing them,” Rao told ABC News.

After several months of back-and-forth emails and phone calls, Alaska Airlines agreed to the delay. “We recognize our customer’s passions,” Chase Craig, Alaska’s director of onboard brand experience, said in a release. “Certainly we can’t change flight plans for every interest, but this was a special moment, so we thought it was worth it.”

PHOTO: A total solar eclipse is visible through the clouds as seen from Vagar on the Faeroe Islands, March 20, 2015.
A total solar eclipse is visible through the clouds as seen from Vagar on the Faeroe Islands, March 20, 2015.
Eric Adams/AP Photo

Rao isn’t the only eclipse chaser on the plane; several other astronomers and eclipse lovers have booked window seats on the Alaska flight. One of the passengers on the plane even plans to bring 200 special protective glasses that allow other passengers to view the eclipse.

Rao himself will be distributing material on board explaining what passengers can expect, including the fact that they’ll be able to see the total solar eclipse for a total of one minute and 54 seconds.

Rao, who has seen “only” 10 total eclipses, said there are major perks to seeing an eclipse from cruising altitude.

“You're above the clouds,” he explained. Otherwise, “if there's a cloud in front of the sun during totality, you're not going to see the eclipse.

“You [also] get a chance to see the moon's shadow sweeping across the landscape. At 37,000 feet, that's a dramatic sight to see.”

So, if the shadow is so great, why not chase it from the plane? The shadow of the eclipse will be moving at 8,000 mph, compared to the plane, which will be moving at 500 mph, according to Rao.

“Guess who’s going to win that race?” Rao said with a laugh.

This isn’t the first time Rao has asked an airline to change a flight course. He said he persuaded American Trans Air to delay a departure in 1990 by 41 minutes so he and other passengers could see another eclipse while flying from Honolulu to San Francisco.

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