When the sun and the moon and the Earth aligned this week, an Alaska Airlines jet was in the right place at the right time to catch the total solar eclipse.
The March 8 rendezvous over the Pacific Ocean was not luck, but a precisely planned equation. The calculations began a year ago. The only variable was the plane.
In window seat 32F, Joe Rao was one of the dozen astronomers and veteran “eclipse chasers” among the 181 passengers onboard, gazing out oval windows as the moon blocked the sun for nearly two minutes.
He’s an associate astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium(where astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is director). About a year ago, Rao discovered that Alaska Airlines Flight 870 from Anchorage to Honolulu would intersect the “path of totality” – the darkest shadow of the moon as it passes over the Earth.
But the flight’s normally scheduled departure time would have been 25 minutes too early, missing the grand spectacle.
Rather than attempt to move the sun or the moon or the Earth, Rao called Alaska Airlines.
Alaska decided to move the plane.
“It’s an unbelievably accommodating gesture,” said Mike Kentrianakis, solar eclipse project manager for the American Astronomical Society, who was in seat 6F. “Not only is Alaska Airlines getting people from Point A to Point B, but they’re willing to give them an exciting flight experience. An airline that’s actually talking to their people – and listening! That’s customer service at its best. It’s become personal.”
NEW: WATCH THE ECLIPSE VIDEO
Video by Mike Kentrianakis/American Astronomical Society